An Interview with Javier Velez AKA Versal

2 0
Read Time:15 Minute, 55 Second

Recently, we caught up with veteran musician, Javier Velez. Among other things, we touch on what he’s been up to during the lockdown, his origins, his new album, Versal Vol. 2, his songwriting process, what’s next for him, and a whole lot more.

If you would like to learn more about Javier, and his new project, you can follow him via Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, Facebook, and of course, his webpage.

Once you’ve checked those out, dig into this interview with Javier. Cheers.

Andrew:
Javier, thank you for taking the time. How have you been holding up over the last year or so? What have you been up to?

Javier:
Well, I appreciate you having me as well. Life has been good, considering the circumstances. It’s undeniable that this COVID issue has affected everyone, and it’s clear how it has impacted our way of life at every level. I am hopeful though, that things will get better and we’ll come out of it eventually. This album [Versal Vo. 2] is a good example, it’s been mostly in the can for well over a year, but I decided to hold on, given the uncertainty of it all. Some positive things came out of it, as I had time to move to a larger house with more comfortable areas for both my production studio and a new grand piano. Ever since I was a kid, music just pours out of my head like a hose, so of course, the writing never stops. On a quiet day, I will jot down between five to ten new themes, ranging from piano solos to Electronic, to Orchestral, and everything in between. The biggest problem is choosing what to produce out of all of that.

Andrew:
Before we dive into your professional career, let’s go back a bit. What first got you hooked on music?

Javier:
My first recollection is actually not mine, but my mother’s. She told me how one morning I was in my crib (I was two years old) mumbling something that she couldn’t make up. Upon calling my dad, who could sing in tune, he explained that I was singing the opening song from a children’s TV show, in tempo and pitch. I guess that was the beginning. It also helped that almost all members of my family were musicians.

My grandfather was a self-taught trombone and trumpet player with great musical ability. I remember when I was about six years old, going under his bed, and there was a valve trombone in its case. I put the thing together and instinctively pressed my lips, and made it sound right off the bat. My neighbors were with me, and they just blew on it and couldn’t make a sound. I didn’t understand how they didn’t understand what to do. From there, my mother bought me a small organ, which was great for learning how to read three staffs at once. I then learned both trumpet, and trombone in a span of several years.

When I was fourteen, my uncle brought home an electric guitar, and I was immediately hooked. Then came the Classical guitar, which is such a different instrument from electric, technique-wise. I had to re-learn and drop some really bad habits I had picked from my self-taught years of electric guitar. Then, in college, came the piano, and I really honed in on the composition side of things. I bought a piano that had termites for a few hundred dollars. Houses in Puerto Rico are made out of concrete, so my mother didn’t even care. I was forced to study Finance, as music was no way to earn a living. But I took every elective in music, so I ended up learning harmony, composition, counterpoint, and orchestration. That time was invaluable to me and some of my fondest memories as I came to understand music in a completely different way. Nowadays, I only practice 20th century period music on the piano, and the rest, like guitar, bass, etc., I dust off if I need to use it for a track.

Andrew:
Who were some of your early influences?

Javier:
Well, being from Puerto Rico, Salsa was always playing everywhere, TV, radio, public venues, etc. It is super complex music both harmonically and rhythmically, so I’m very grateful I grew up there. I also remember The Beatles had a cartoon show, and I loved that as well. I’m talking four years old. Then out came Switched-On Bach by Walter/Wendy Carlos, and that was really my first exposure to Orchestral music, contradictorily on the Moog Synthesizer. I was mesmerized by both the sound of the Moog, and the musical intricacy of fugues. So, from that point on, I craved more and more Orchestral music, starting with Vivaldi, Bach, and Beethoven, until I got to Debussy/Ravel/Satie, which to me, is really the start of the modern music period.

I bear witness to some of the greatest musicians on earth thanks to the Cassals festival. Izak Pearlman, Garry Karl, Julian Bream, Alicia de la Rocha, Daniel Baremboin, it’s a long list. My favorite composers of Orchestral music though are Charles Ives and Bela Bartok. On the Pop side of things, I would say old Genesis up until And Then There Were Three is my greatest influence. I have never circumscribed to a single genre though. I love Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Johnny Cash, John Denver, The Carpenters, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, KISS, Yes, Rush, Tool, Dave Arkenstone, Enya, Enigma, etc., etc. To me, they are all equally powerful when it comes to delivering great music. There are really so many amazing composers, and songwriters that shaped how I approach music, we could be here all day just talking about them.

All images courtesy of AMWorld Group

Andrew:
Let’s talk about recent events. Tell us about your new album, Versal Vol. 2.

Javier:
Well, for the most part, the album had been done for over a year, and I was just waiting for things to normalize before releasing. Because my idea of music doesn’t really adhere to a single genre as I was saying, I try to diversify as much as possible. The project folder for this album had forty-three structured and completed compositions in it, some were Jazz, some were even Heavy Metal, imagine. So, I grabbed the ones that sort of went together and committed. Part of the concept with Project Versal is to be as universal as possible. I would have very little motivation in producing eight tracks that sounded all the same. I try to keep some sort of continuity and make it somewhat homogenous, but in the end, I am going to throw the kitchen sink if I can somehow force-fit it all in there. I rely heavily on melodies and harmonic modulation because I use no lyrics. I love the human voice, but I can’t write lyrics to save my life. Paradoxically, my best friend is a Ph.D. and professor of literature. He used to write stories and I would do the drawings for homemade comic books. He still keeps them after all these years. As far as the album goes, it starts with a slow romantic piano solo in “Simply,” and progressively picks things up; so by the time we get to “Kind Of Pink,” and “Guardians,” we’re at full speed. Then, I dial it down again with “Aquas,” which is more of a meditative contemplative piece, and the last work, “Departed,” which I recently wrote, and dedicated to my father, who sadly passed away a few weeks before release.

Andrew:
What themes are you exploring with your new music? How has your background brought you to this point in your musical journey?

Javier:
I used to play in cover bands many moons ago and realized that was not the life I wanted. So, after that, I started writing exclusively for documentaries, TV/radio jingles, and a couple of films, and I got to a point where I really wanted to get away from all that as well and explore my own ideas completely unrestricted. Music to picture is very rigid, and understandably so, because of its nature; by the time you sit down to write, you are having input from directors, producers, music supervisors, cut changes, with very little room for creativity. And the lower the budget, the more difficult it seems to get. I even had a director who once told me that the notes I was using were not the same as the notes on the temp track for the cut. He wanted me to literally plagiarize the temp track, I couldn’t believe it! On top of that, usually, they are looking for you to sound like an X, Y, or Z composer, so there is little room for individuality. It’s a great way to make a living, of course, and I’m grateful for it, but Project Versal is based on my own concepts, and musical ideas.

Andrew:
How about the production side of things? Do you self-produce?

Javier:
Yes, from the artwork, which I create in 3D/CG, to every single note on every track. I wish I had the budget to pay live musicians for some of the sampled parts, as they sound more authentic, and can be recorded very quickly instead of fiddling around with samples for weeks on end to get them to an acceptable point. But hiring an orchestra is prohibitive on these budgets. At least the musicians who perform on the orchestral sample libraries get paid a portion of the library sales, so that gives me a bit of comfort. Orchestras are becoming a rarity these days; it saddens me because there are very few things as powerful as a live symphonic orchestra. I’m very fortunate to live in Houston where we still have a one-hundred-and-five-seat symphonic orchestra. I also used to have a bunch of synths, and modules back in the day, but now, I’m strictly in the box using VSTIs, though I do miss having all the knobs to play with manually, something about that tactile feedback that you don’t get on virtual instruments.

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Cassettes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? What are a few of your favorite albums, and why?

Javier:
I used to have a huge record collection, and when I moved to Europe for a few years, my beloved mother thought I didn’t want them anymore, and disposed of them, bless her heart, because that broke mine. [Laughs]. I have gone mostly digital these days, some of the Deutsche Grammophon recordings I can only find on CDs, as they don’t stream them. Those I used to have on vinyl. Some, like Narciso Yepes playing Vivaldi with an orchestra, were lost forever.

As far as favorites, I always look for things that are timeless, just like Bach and Beethoven are timeless. I would say Kind Of Blue from Miles Davis would be at the top of my list. That album is so unique in every way. Modal Jazz is played by some of the best musicians who ever lived, true conjunction of souls. I think Bill Evans even made Miles privy to some of my favorite orchestral composers like Bartok and Ravel if my memory serves me.

Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, is another one of those unique albums that sound like nothing else in this world. The entire band, and particularly Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel, really went exospheric on that one. Genesis is an example of a band that didn’t even get a hit track for many years after that album, but musically, and creatively, they have always been at the top of their game.

The Dark Side of the Moon, of course, is timeless. And Michael Jackson’s Thriller is probably one of the best examples of how to produce (thank you, Quincy). It’s the quintessential “less is more” that I keep pursuing in my own productions. Hopefully, someday I will come close to touching the sun, and not burn out! Even my young daughter, Abigail, listens to Thriller after almost FORTY years of its release. To me, that is a testament to that timelessness I was talking about.

Andrew:
What other passions do you have? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?

Javier:
I love art. I love physics. And I love programming. I particularly love creating scenes in CGI. Even all those eggs on that beach on the artwork for the album were procedurally generated in Python on a 3D application. So, there is a convergence of knowledge that I’m seldom aware of until I look back at what I created.

I also used to work as a director of photography, and editor for a while. I think about music in some very philosophical terms on a daily basis, and I have come to realize that there are some parallels between all arts. Representational art is beautiful and was done very well by the old masters, but when you look at some abstract expressionism, there is no real meaning to it; it just exists, like a beautiful landscape, no meaning needs to be assigned to it in order to appreciate its beauty. Music arrived at that level of abstraction centuries ago. There is an old tale about Beethoven playing a new piano composition for a court, and he was asked what its meaning was. Upset, as usual, he sat at the piano, and played it all over again, got up, and said, “That’s what it means! No words are necessary.”

Oh, and Formula One, I can’t wait for the 2022 season to get started!

Andrew:
In your opinion, what is the state of the music business these days? Should artists be hopeful? Scared? Both?

Javier:
I think it’s all relative, and there are pros and cons. The advent of computers and the internet to create, and distribute music has caused a paradigm shift. This has been happening throughout the recorded history of music. It used to be that we had only the concept of monophonic music, and it was considered actual heresy to have more than a unison voice going at once. Then came the introduction of the fifth and third of the chord and polyphony, homophony, and we continued to enrich the harmonic vocabulary and orchestral palette. Now having fourth, sixth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteen chords is commonplace.

Then electric instruments, microphones, amps, and compressors came about, and suddenly, we don’t have to worry about technique from the standpoint of projecting sound to a venue of thousands. So, instead of a sixty seat string section, we just plug one guitar into a bunch of amps, and speakers, and presto, it sounds louder; yet I love how Hendrix, Alan Holdsworth, Jimmy Page, and Adele sound, and they are virtuous performers and creators in their own right, no question.

To me, it’s all very relative. I will point out that with the easy access to computers, and canned looped sounds, we see more and more of what I call “Frankenstein Music.” That’s the scary part. This is going to be a point of contention for some, I’m sure, and here is where I draw some comparisons. Imagine a blogger writing about X subject. He goes out and finds twenty articles about X, copies a paragraph from each, puts them together in a somewhat coherent way, and then says, “Look what I created!” In reality, he didn’t create anything. It’s like Frankenstein going to a graveyard, grabbing a bunch of body parts, stitching them together, and yelling, “Eureka! It’s alive! I created this!”

The same goes for some of those deconstructions we hear these days of great songs, and even Orchestral works into four-chord diatonic progressions, and a monotone for lyrics. We end up with much less than the original work, so I’m not sure how that advances music forward, and to me that’s key. It’s like taking an architectural landmark building, and tearing down the windows, plumbing, and electricity, and thinking it’s somehow better than the original. The previous wave of composers and scholars throughout history have always complained about new music and innovators, as music became more and more complex, to the point where you had to sit down and listen to a work several times for the melody to reveal itself, like in Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. What we have now in some cases is a regression and deconstruction, not really moving forward.

It’s like going back to push carts when we already have an electric engine vehicle. In some instances, the music is stripped down to one or two of its five elements (melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm, dynamics). Well, you do have elements of music, but not all of them, like in the case of the four tires and a rearview mirror, which are elements of a car, but not really functional. I find it very hard to get behind that. Having said that, there is great music being produced in every one of the now over a thousand genres out there. And even though my own creative process is really a spontaneous conception of melody, harmony, tempo, etc., happening all at once in my head, I have greatly benefited from music education. It is the way to really turn a rough idea into something much better.

My hope is that the newer generations learn about both music theory, and music history, as it can only facilitate turning a possible lump of coal into a diamond, even if flawed, and full of occlusions.

Andrew:
Last one. What’s next on your docket? What are you looking forward to most in the post-COVID world?

Javier:
I am writing my first symphony, something that has been long overdue for me. It will probably never see the light of day in concert halls, yet I feel compelled to do it. And I can still publish with some of the sampled libraries that keep getting better, and better every day. Parallel to that, I am working on my next Versal project album, with a mix of Electronic and Orchestral instruments, as I have been doing so far. Always looking for something new, and different that can get me out of my comfort zone. My approach is to hide complexity, while keeping it emotionally accessible to the listener, and to touch others with that universal language that is music. Thank you so much for having me!

Interested in learning more about the work of Javier Valez & Versal Volume 2? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found VWMusic in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Idle Chatter. Over time, the column grew into a website that now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process. Some of Andrew’s favorite artists include KISS, Oasis, ACϟDC, Elvis Presley, Ace Frehley, The Rolling Stones, Rush, The Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, The Gaslight Anthem, Iron Maiden, John Lennon, The Melvins, Noel Gallagher, Regina Spektor, Rory Gallagher, The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Neil Young, Blur, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and many more.
Happy
Happy
0 %
Sad
Sad
0 %
Excited
Excited
0 %
Sleepy
Sleepy
0 %
Angry
Angry
0 %
Surprise
Surprise
0 %

Average Rating

5 Star
0%
4 Star
0%
3 Star
0%
2 Star
0%
1 Star
0%

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: