Pianist/violinist/vocalist/composer/photographer/painter/blogger Billie Howard seems to be doing a bit of everything these days in Chicago. Her blog By Measure recently caught our attention with its in-depth interviews and behind-the-scenes glimpses into the the work spaces of local musicians. Quirky questions and personalized "mix tapes" keep her interviews intimate; each is a unique and entertaining read. She graciously took the time to share with the Soapbox crew some of her own ideas about music, space and creativity.







Soapbox: Your blog By Measure takes a behind-the-scenes look at the places where musicians work. What compelled you to start it?

Billie Howard:  My dad always has photos of artists in their studios (Picasso, Richter, etc) up in his own work space, and I'm intrigued to see into their private world a little bit. I was thinking about how there are not many photos of musician's work spaces, so I decided to start documenting them on my own.


Soapbox: In the process of photographing and interviewing your subjects, has anything in particular surprised you? 

BH: Nothing has been that surprising so far. I feel badly sometimes when I can tell the person has been frantically tidying up before I arrive. I have a quote up in my office that reads: "a perfectly kept office is the sign of a misspent life." The point of the project is to see how musicians really work and I find the daily clutter all the more interesting.


Soapbox:  Do you have any thoughts on space and the creative process? In what ways do you think a space can encourage/discourage creativity? 

BH: The space I'm in when I'm practicing or writing music or rehearsing really affects me. If I'm in a tiny piano practice room with no windows, my attention can be very short. If I'm having band practice in a small, dingy, dark room, I can get really crabby with my bandmates. For me, open space, just the right lighting and general quiet are really helpful for focusing on both classical music or writing rock songs. 


Soapbox: Have the folks you request to interview always been happy to share? 

BH: Yes, everyone has been really enthusiastic about the project. I've only had one person not respond to my request. 


Soapbox: You are a professional musician yourself.  Have the behind-the-scenes peeks influenced your own musical workspace? 

BH: It's interesting to see how the spaces have many similarities, yet the musicians have different working styles. I'm trying to make my own space more efficient, less cluttered and more cozy. I like to put up small installations using lights and sparkly colors. 


Soapbox: Can you tell us about some of your musical projects? 

BH: I play in two bands: an aggressive, post-rock band called the Paver and a 1960's-influenced indie-pop band called Very Truly Yours. I play keyboards, electric violin and sing in both bands. I also play a lot of new music around Chicago and recently formed a piano trio (we're working on the Ravel piano trio right now). I'm working on starting a doom metal band, an electronic band and a no-wave band. I need more time!



48 Volts: Interview with Mars Dynamo

MY DADDY IS A YAKUZA! by marsdynamo


Here's a story you've probably heard: just when your favorite loft space, underground venue, or party house is growing bigger and gaining a following - it gets shut down or the people who run it leave town. Such was the case with the Myour party house and the musician behind it, Mars Dynamo. I had first heard about Myour house last year from Limbs when he said they were throwing some pretty crazy parties and a while back when a party organized by Mars exploded in Wicker Park. It's too bad Mars recently moved to San Francisco because her honesty and earnestness and sheer energetic/magnetic force is exactly what is needed to combat the armadillo like skin of the Chicago music scene. Haters are gonna hate, but Mars doesn't give a fuck and pours out her love anyway, and that aggressive approach to unity against all odds is what we need in this town. Musically she is all over the place, but quoting from her Soundcloud: "Chicago based underground electronic princess. Grundgy dirty electro bubble gum pop indi rock twat core dance punk type of jam." Check out our super in-depth interview with Mars as she talks about growing up in China, gender politics, race, and the philosophy behind Myour house.



Soapbox: Where did you grow up? How did you first get involved with music and art?

Mars Dynamo: I grew up in Dalian, China, eventually moved to the east coast with just my mom and dad, and then moved to Chicago for college. I was fortunate enough to have a crazy “Asian Tiger” mom, who exposed me to all types of art and sports when I was a child. My free time was taken up by ballet classes, piano classes, english courses, ping pong, physics study classes, drawing and painting classes. My mom was very dedicated in the sense that she wanted me to be exposed to the world. I appreciate that aspect of the upbringing, but of course I dropped everything when we moved to the U.S. because my dad was getting his Ph.D. at the time, so we weren’t in a financial position to get me lessons. I always had an artistic streak, I had always won random awards and had a genuine interest in noise making when I was a child. I knew I had a lot of talent, because music and art came easy to me, and I enjoyed it while the other kids in the class were forced to be there and didn't apply themselves as readily. My parents wanted me to go to Harvard, but I chose to go to art school. I got accepted in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and during college I was able to actually explore the fields I was interested in. Artists are extremely important in any society because they provide a critique of what’s going on. I always thought it was important to immerse myself in art and music, to get a greater sense of what’s going on in the world.


Soapbox: Can you talk a little bit about MYOUR house? What was the philosophy behind that space, what were its goals?

MD: The Myour house was our underground all ages venue dedicated to new music and the unity of people. The idea was simple enough in the beginning - we just wanted a space to perform whatever, whenever, and throw dope ass dance parties that people would remember. It was an awesome 4000 sq ft event space where we lived and partied. Our upstairs, which was the office/bedroom/VIP room, had a jacuzzi right in the middle of it. Our downstairs had no walls, it was all open space and the basement was sectioned off for smoking and all kinds of debaucheries. The space was right between the tech college and the crack head corner, on the verge of the ghetto where the cops didn't even care! We threw fundraisers for artists and for the southside community arts center, tried out bizarre live performances, and tested new style designs for our flyers. It was like a test ground for all things creative for the first three months. There was one time where a kid from the suburbs somehow picked up one of our flyers an came to one of our Myour parties, and he came up to me to say, "I've never seen a gay person before, I just met my first gay person, and who the fuck cares ‘cause we're all getting drunk together tonight on the dance floor!" I love that. I have always loved the idea of connecting people, overcoming adversities, and trying to understand people with different backgrounds. Chicago is a unique city. We are incredibly ethnic and cultural, yet completely segregated. I have made the point to check out every scene, because I was curious about people in general. I hung out with hispanic kids, african american kids, asian kids, and white kids, and watched how they speak about each other. There is always some stupid beef that is completely illogical. Despite all having similar backgrounds the Puerto Ricans hate the Mexicans, or vice-versa, or the Mexicans can't stand the Blacks in their neighborhood, the Asians are annoyed with the Italians and so on. At one point or another, our parents or grandparents were immigrants in this country, we all really go through some of the same turmoil and scrutiny. It's completely ludicrous to me that we are segregated. The ethnic community really has a lot more in common with each other than a suburban Caucasian kid who's lucky enough to have wealthy parents to give them a stellar education and enough funds to travel the world before the age 17. Know what I mean? Point is, one of my life goals and vision is to show people that they can mingle and have an awesome time even if they think they can't get along with one another. It is also incredibly rewarding once someone shares their culture, food, music, and cultural nuances.


Soapbox: What is your creative process when working on a new project?

MD: Any artist that tells you that you can just punch out creative work everyday is probably lying. Art is a reflection of life. I need to live life before I make art about it. I remember back in art school, one of my professors came into the class all pissed - this amazing Japanese guy who's a film teacher, and he's literally spitting in our faces, because he's mad at the fact that our project was about being in art school. I'll never forget, he's like "if you are making shit about art school, then you don't know shit about life, so go and live a little and then get back to me and stop wasting your parent’s money." I have to be in the right reflective mind set to create and work on a new project. With music, most of my work is made while acclimating myself with the program. This is probably why “Made on Mars”, my first album, sounds like it's coming from eight different studios, besides the fact that it has literally jumped through 4 different studios. I will share this really great trick with you guys, and it's benefited me throughout all of my creative processes. I go into the studio, open up a program like Cubase, Logic Pro, or FL studios, and I will start about 5-10 different sketches. I will write about ten seconds of a song, and just spit out whatever I feel like at the moment. Then the next day I will go back to listening to it, and pick out the three that I will work on. I have extreme A.D.D. and a strange fear of finishing things, so I like to fluctuate between these different projects until a week later I've made three songs miraculously. The rest of the sketches I just keep in a folder, and I’ll never know when I'll need them again.


Soapbox: How do you prefer to engage people with your work and why? Shows, gallery, recordings, other?

MD: I used to play shows often during my time at the Myour House. Honestly I just want to make a ton of work, release it on the different avenues online and whatever happens happens. I know this is where record labels can jump in and give me a marketing push - I really hate spending time marketing. It is the most mind numbing and unimaginative way an artist can spend his or her time on yet extremely important. There are marketing geniuses out there for that, and I've done my fair share, but it really cuts into my time in the development of my art. I agree with what Jay-Z said - the live show has to be more exciting than the flash of the artist. The artist has to deliver live as much as she or he does in the photos and whatever flash they got going. I'm working on amping my live show, that means doing something really theatrical and outrageous but genuine. I am still trying to find that group of special people who are willing to do that, the type who just love the theatrics of it all and who can get lost in it. I don't think coordinated dancing is really necessary. In fact, it's extremely goofy and corny. There is no good reason why an artist must prance about the stage like a moron to get some attention. For one of my songs, BFGF, couples get on stage while I'm doing my set and they rip each other's clothes off and make out. It’s important that they are madly in love with each other because then it's genuine and every ounce of genuine emotion will be picked up by the viewer. I think I'll have better luck out in San Francisco because people here seem to have a freer vibe.


Soapbox: Do you think nostalgia is a curse or a blessing?

MD: Nostalgia is a blessing. I am nostalgic all the time, because I like to remember the good stuff and that’s what made me. The bad stuff gets filed back but really there’s no good reason or need to remember any of it.


Soapbox: How do you feel about the Chicago music scene?

MD: I love the Chicago music scene. I think it's got a very masculine energy to it. It fits the setting because of all the concrete and metal we see. All the sounds are hard hitting and grand. Actually my song Grand City is completely about the Chicago vibe, as a single person living in this giant death winter city. A lot of fans have told me that it captures Chicago perfectly; it refers to the lonely people in the scene who are really just trying to find love. The people behind the music are interesting. I think there are two types of artists, the ones who create, and support the creative community, and the ones who do it purely for the ego of it all. I see a lot of that in the dance corner, but having been there myself, I'll admit it is completely miserable. An artist's sole purpose is to communicate an idea or feeling, or comment on some type of existence to the world. When egos get involved, it makes people hold back on the communication because they are so worried how others might see them. Chicago is the type of city that could use a bit more unity. In New York everyone works with everyone, no biggie, not too much fuss. Chicago is clique oriented. I've seen many of the artists badmouth each other, but in the end also work together, simply because it really is the only way to survive. You can't get anywhere if you are divided, and I wish more people understood that.


Soapbox: How do race and gender politics affect artistic communities?

MD: Race and gender not only affects artistic communities, it affects all communities in society. America as a country is not progressive enough yet. The fact that women are paid less than men is ridiculous to me, and when the economic downturn happened women were the first ones to get laid off from wall street. You can name countless examples like that. The fact that Hillary Clinton running for office sparked massive bar fights is obscene to me. I mean, sure Obama was more likable, but I found that during the election people were polarized by Hillary Clinton unlike the other democratic candidates. It was either “I hate her, she’s the devil,” or “I think she’s going to ruin our country.” As a member of the arts community, I have personally witnessed a lot of inequality, but I know it's getting better everyday. I know a piece of art work will be perceived differently by the masses if it is made by a man versus a woman. I wanted to release my visual work under a very androgynous name back in college so people would be unbiased when viewing it. When I released work under just my real name the work gravitated towards an offensive and aggressive style because I wanted to see the reactions from people, and it was never good, because it was so unexpected. It proved my point though, so I got what I needed out of these art experiments. When I punched out my album, I used to show other male producers my music, and the first thing that came out of their mouths were "who made the beats for this, who composed the background music?" - assuming that I had nothing to do with the production of it besides singing on top of it. Then I tell them that it's me, I did everything, and they get stupidly surprised like "Oh, I thought you were just the singer." I get this constantly. If I never got asked, I would probably never be sensitive to it. Bottom line, a female can do everything a male can do, it's whether she chooses to do it or not. Our society doesn't expect a woman to geek out over software or hardware or develop an in depth hobby for electronics, so I think as a result, many of them stay away from it. I have photographer girlfriends who don't want to touch Photoshop, which is ridiculous - how can you not know Photoshop if you are a photographer in 2011? I just knew from an early age that learning and discovering was what kept me sane and happy. I needed to have my own revelations.


Soapbox: What's the origin of original thought?

MD: My active ovaries. I have no idea. It comes from learning new shit.


Soapbox: Any upcoming projects you are working on?

MD: Yeah, I am supposed to be releasing my second album. It's done and pressed to go, but I have not gotten around to it. It's a collection of songs made with other amazing producers, such as Benn Jordan, DJ Limbs, Quelle Christopher, Kahil El'Zabar, and other people. I wanted to see how I'd work with other artists and mingle my energy with theirs. It's been a really interesting ride. I am also working on a electro dance punk project called “Kids in Suits” with Quelle Christopher, he just makes the dopest sounding beats.


Soapbox: Anybody you'd like to shoutout in Chicago?

MD: Everyone who’s ever been to the Myour House! I LOVE LOVE LOVE YOU! Jessica Arch(i)e Pappalardo, Ricardo Martinez, thanks for getting arrested for me. LOL XOXOXO.

48 Volts: DJ Limbs Interview

Victor Carreon, aka DJ Limbs is probably the hardest working DJ in Chicago. He's got a consistent stream of regular gigs all over town, is always up for even the smallest side gigs, and even organizes charitable fundraising gigs to help others. When he isn't playing out, he's staying in and working on tracks, researching or building the next piece of gear in his arsenal.  His day job is working on sound design - it seems that every aspect of his life involves soundwaves. He recently won the Vocalo remix contest and is a regular contributor to IPMM. You can find him posting about pizza and music on his personal site,


I first met Limbs when he got involved (and later ran) UC Hiphop down in Urbana-Champaign. We caught up with him between gigs for a quick interview.



Soapbox: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?


DJ Limbs: First it was whatever my older sisters were listening to, which was a lot of new wave, RnB, 80s boy bands and other pop acts. I got into Michael Jackson at an early age and listened to all his albums. While I was living in Switzerland I watched a lot of MTV, and the European Top 40 usually had really dope house joints.


Soapbox: How did you learn how to DJ?


DJ Limbs: Copying videos, internet and a lot of practice. There weren't any other DJs to build with in my early years. I benefited a lot when I got to college and got to work closely with some really talented folks.


Soapbox: What is your creative and/or technical process when approaching a remix? 

DJ Limbs: When an opportunity comes up, I usually have a few beats in the works already so I might go back to pick and choose elements from works in progress and see how they fit. If nothing's sounding right, I'll make something new. I pretty much hack at it until something I like comes out. Having an acapella to build around helps speed up the process.


Soapbox: How do you stay on top of all the fast changing technology out there?


DJ Limbs: I follow the CreateDigitalMusic and SoundOnSound blogs and lurk the forums for the software I use - Ableton and Native Instrument plugs for the most part. I also read Future Music, Computer Music Magazine and MusicTech when I'm in a bookstore. I like music tech, but for the most part I'm really just looking for something that fits my ideal vision of a music making workflow. Still haven't found it!


Soapbox: DJing vs production vs sound design. What's the difference?

DJ Limbs: I think it's how much I zoom into things. In DJing, I'm zoomed out the most, thinking about the vibe of a large space over a long period of time. I build the vibe with full songs or looped grooves. DJing is also a performance where I'm interacting directly with an audience, so I think about the visual presentation as well as aural. In production I'm zoomed in a bit more. I get to build tracks by layering smaller elements of music like drum loops, sample snippets and melody lines. I focus on how to create and develop a mood and idea in a shorter period of time. I also sometimes think about how to sequence the track so I can use it when DJing. I feel the most stuck to a rhythmic grid in production. In sound design I'm zoomed into the waveforms of the noises we hear. Sometimes I'll build elements for music, sometimes they'll just be bizarre sounds. I think about timbre, volume, length, frequency spectrum and what images/emotions sounds evoke. It's easy to get lost in sound design.


Soapbox: What advice would you give to DJs just starting out?


DJ Limbs: Figure out why you really want to DJ. Learn your history. Research gear. Peep your local scene and seek out peers for advice but don't go overboard on the networking. Mentors are good, but not always necessary to grow. If you practice to the point that your vision is blurry, you're on the right track to some technical illness! Listen to as much music as you can but build your collection slowly and try to pick only the tracks you really love. Get a Soundcloud. Follow labels, your favorite artists and stores/distributors more than blogs.


Soapbox: What sort of music are you listening to now?


DJ Limbs: UK funky and grime beats that have elements of Juke, RnB and cool sounds. Electronic dance stuff coming out of South America and other parts of the world. I'm always digging into world, soul, reggae and psychedelic breaks from the past. The future-head nodding stuff ala FlyLo and fam still comes up in my playlists. I keep my ear out for the new indie dance/pop stuff for gigs I do, and I like some of that stuff too. Deep house. Hiphop of course, but more 80s-early 2000s than the most recent stuff except for a few MCs. I've been digging into the section of post-punk that has a real dancey almost disco/almost break drums + stripped down bassline/guitar riffs and mad fun + energetic vocals.


Soapbox: What's the future of music sound like?

DJ Limbs: In the mainstream, probably louder and more offensive with elements jacked from the 90s. In electronic stuff, I think the sounds and rhythms will continue getting more organic. 150 BPMs might be a bit more of the norm in dance music. More genres will cross pollinate. The breaks and 808s will still be there!


Soapbox: Thoughts on the Chicago music scene? What would you like to see happen? 


DJ Limbs: There's a lot of talent in Chicago and a lot of pockets of different scenes. I'd like to see myself get more involved and see them intertwine more.


Soapbox: Any shout outs?


DJ Limbs: Shouts to the 217 homes I'm still building with, Cage and Aquarium, People's DJs Collective, IPaintMyMind, BKC, Cutz on Cuts crew, Push folks, Round House Kicks, Murdertronics and Turbulence Productions.


48 Volts: Interview with Dustin Wong

About two months ago I had the good fortune of catching Baltimore's own Dustin Wong at the Hideout. His minimalist setup consisted of just a guitar with a loop pedal and a few fx pedals.   Now, loop pedals can be notoriously unforgiving evil beasts for a few reasons: one, it's very hard to get long multi-layered sequences tight and natural sounding, and two, it is very hard to know when to stop layering, when to create space and simply enjoy the nooks and crannies of the loop. Despite these challenges, Dustin made it all look effortless.


Dustin Wong and his minimalist setup.

Each layer would interlock perfectly and create interesting polyrhythms, and the timing always felt right. Just when things were building to a precarousily dense climax - BOOM! - he cleared the slate and started a fresh line, forging a new path and beckoning the listener to follow. The fluidity of his performance was impressive and the melodic variation and emotional content stayed elevated throughout the night. Dustin talked to us a bit about his background and creative process, his experiences playing solo vs playing in a band, as well as his most recent album, Infinite Love.

SOAPBOX: How did you first get involved with music?


Dustin Wong: I started playing guitar when I was 15. I attended this international school while I was living in Japan, it was called the Christian Academy in Japan. There were a lot of American kids, their families being missionaries - it was a very conservative Christian community in the middle of Tokyo, which was kind of bizarre. You know you'd have these weird things like every Wednesday you'd have chapel and hear somebody talk about their faith and I guess it was all starting to feel really crazy when I was about 15. I started listening to punk and formed a band with friends - it was a terrible band... That's how I got started.  


SOAPBOX: Did your band have a name?

DW: [laughs] Yeah, but I'm kind of embarrassed to say it.  


SOAPBOX: [laughs] I understand. How long ago was that?

DW: I'm 28 now so...13 years ago?


SOAPBOX: When you were learning guitar did you get a lot of formal instruction? Or are you self-taught?

DW: No I didn't take any guitar lessons. But you know, some of my dad's friends would come over and show me a few chords, how to play an E or an A or something, and then I'd play those chords for weeks. And then I started figuring it out on my own - it all started with shapes. It was helpful for me just because I was more visual. I'd try to think, "Well, what does a square sound like, versus a rectangle? What does a triangle shape sound like on the fretboard of the guitar?" It started out very chaotic, like I'd put chopsticks in between the strings to see how that sounded. But as I got older and played more, it all started to click more.


SOAPBOX: It's interesting that you are self taught, and started off playing in a punk did you get to doing more intricate polyrhythms, stuff that really reminds me of a lot of minimalist composers like Steve Reich?  


DW: Yea, I was getting introduced to those types of artists when I was in college. As I started writing music with other people, we were definitely trying to push ourselves in understanding music. Before Ecstatic Sunshine I was in another guitar duo with a friend, and you know it would take us months to write one song, just because we didn't understand how music worked. It was all based on what we felt was right. I learned a lot from that, just listening back and understanding the actual construction of how music works.  


SOAPBOX: In terms of the compositional and performance process, how does it feel to do a more solo project vs playing with bands?


DW: In the band setting, with my experiences writing music with other people, the song structures would have a rare repeat of musical ideas. We'd start with one idea, go to another, go to another, it was never an A-B-A-B pattern or structure. So all music made with bands, it was a very horizontal direction where the song would start and go somewhere. With solo music it's all about loops so certain ideas are constantly repeating and I'm layering ideas on top so that the musical direction is vertical versus horizontal.  


SOAPBOX: Can you describe your live setup? Is that sort of how you came about doing looping, the limitations of performing as a solo person live or was it the other way around?  


DW: It's all the same tools I've used with Ponytail, it's the same pedals - tuner, octave pedal, distortion, delay, looper, envelope filter and another delay. It's just that the approach has changed. It was something I would do privately at home where I would loop things and layer things on top, and it was more of a therapy thing. With Ponytail it was more about how many sounds I could play in succession.  


SOAPBOX: How do you feel about your relationship between the performer and the audience?  


DW: It seems like people like to sit down when I play solo versus Ponytail where people will be standing. There is definitely an introspection playing by myself just because it feels like I'm bringing a part of my home to a show, so I'm just kind of in my own space wherever I play. I feel with Ponytail it was more bare and open, almost like a sacrifice, and playing solo feels more like an offering.  


SOAPBOX: I know you have a film background too...


DW: Yeah, I studied film out in California.


SOAPBOX: Is film or video something you've thought about incorporating in your live shows?  


DW: I've thought about it. I don't know - um - it might not be like a regular thing where I'd have a video with me every show, but maybe a special show where I make a more of an installation where I have multiple projectors.


[tape recorder cuts off]


Sadly, the tape recorder cut off here.  I talked with Dustin a bit more about the music scene in Baltimore and his positive experiences being there, as well as the meaning and inspirations behind his latest record, Infinite Love. A concept album, Infinite Love features a "brother" and "sister" version of the same piece.  The siblings start and end in the same place but take independent journeys in the middle, allowing the listener to choose their experience. The name is inspired by a psychedelic vision and the music is intertwined with so much symbolism that it almost has a literary quality. To top it off, each version is bundled with a visual accompaniment on DVD. Infinite Love is available now through Thrill Jockey records. We hope to catch up again with Dustin soon as he continues to tour and work on new projects.




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