Below, you can read our interview with Jeff McMullen, and listen to his album, Square One. Check out our full music review of Square One, HERE.
Q: You were born in Tokyo during the Vietnam war. Sounds like there’s an interesting story there?
A: I wish I could answer this question in Japanese. I was born an American on a US Army base roughly 25 miles from Tokyo. My father flew a C-130 Hercules for the Navy during Vietnam, so he was involved in some risky rescue operations. He served as a lieutenant officer for several years after the war. In 1972, we moved to Texas, and he was stationed in Waco. I never asked him for stories from the war, because he often would avoid talking about it. I don’t blame him. I would have done the same thing. Just before he died in 2016, he did mention a deceased friend that had helped him during the war, and he immediately teared up. I told him I loved him, and that we should let that conversation go.
Q: A Texan, through and through, can you offer a bit about what Texas life & culture have offered to you and your music?
A: What a great state I live in! If you’ve never visited, you should definitely make the effort. Texas music is a special breed, mixed with country, blues, and rock and roll. I have never felt like my music was a perfect blend of this style, however, I have been very grateful for my experiences here all my life. We have the Steve Ray Vaughan (RIP) and Buddy Holly (RIP) legacies, Willie Nelson, Waylon (RIP) and Kris, Don Henley, ZZ Top, Pantera (RIP). The list is almost endless. (And apparently we’re dropping like flies! LOL. Don’t print this in bold type) I think what most Texan songwriters want to convey the most with their music is pride in their Texas heritage. There’s so much luscious history here, and I’m still “somewhat” young. I’m sure I will have plenty to write about for years to come.
“I go pour a glass of Jameson and take deep breaths.”
Q: Your parents desired for you to become a concert pianist, which, for you, meant being classically trained from ages 8-16. (WOW. This alone brings up so many questions!) First, when you decided you wanted something else, what was that conversation like with your parents? Second, how do you feel about that eight-year-stretch now, looking back? From our perspective, it was time well spent, as your work on the keys is simply lovely, and reflective of your acquired skill. (BTW, your keys work on South of Reality’s album, The Truth Behind the Lies, was our favorite aspect of the album.) Finally, how much do those eight years of training still inform your sound and ability to this day?
A: I would hope all parents dream for their children, yet still give them space to discover their own dreams. Mine did, reluctantly. But, I obeyed their wishes, did the competitions, placed 1st in a few of them, and practiced relentlessly. It didn’t hurt that I had a small crush on my piano teacher. When she got frustrated, I just wanted to try harder. My dad bought a Schimmel baby grand for the house, and I loved that piano. But, my parents were disappointed, when at 16, I decided to venture into other kinds of music. I loved to listen to rock & roll, and not only did they not understand my interests, they hated it. I was a big Kiss fan in the 70s; I just loved all loud guitars. So, I self-taught myself to play bass guitar, and quickly joined a high school band. I grew the hair (I had some), the whole 9 yards. It was all about rebellious image. What parent wouldn’t love that? I eventually returned to the piano years later, after my hormones settled, and began writing music.
Looking back on my music training, I can definitely say it made the transition from musician to music producer much easier. I understood many instruments from a theoretical perspective, and I could appreciate all kinds of music. My hardest musical test to date has been the advent of computers in music today. It took me something like 10 years to figure out DAWs. But, I’m pretty savvy with them now. Thank you for the SOR shout-out, BTW.
Q: As noted above, not only are you a solo act, but you also record & perform with bands? Do you prefer one over the other? What is your favorite aspect of both?
A: Being a solo act, you have no one to answer to but yourself. I like that, because it forces me to set the bar higher. When I work with other bands and musicians, it’s more of a learning experience. I try to adapt my style with theirs, and I learn from their knowledge. I also write with other writers, currently with Paul Gandolfi and Mark Dearing. Arguing with other musicians over semantics is just entertaining to me. But in the end, you test your gumption, which is important to grow as a writer. So, there are benefits to every situation.
Q: Your latest album, the solo project, Square One, contains songs which you wrote as far back as 1989 and all the way up to the present day! Along with all of the writing, you also performed, recorded, mixed & sang virtually the entire project yourself! We at The Ark of Music understand what an incredible task it is to create an entire album on one’s own. For aspiring DIY musicians, can you offer a bit of advice about staying focused in the face of such a daunting task. Also, how do you keep the music fresh in your ears while sussing it out? How do you keep frustration at bay?
A: Staying focused is absolutely the key. I had a vision for this record before I ever started it. Even the cover. The title, Square One, is so, because it’s about getting back to the basics of songwriting and production. I would say keep the concept simple, scale back the intricate production at first, and just listen to what’s there recorded. You can always layer instruments in later. But a great song, is great no matter how it’s produced. So start there, get some great songs. Great songs come from life experiences, and are shared as honestly and as clearly written as possible. So, more people can feel what you are trying to say. Try to think universally, the song will last longer. 1989 is a long time ago, but Lick And a Promise, the first track, is still viable today. As far as performance is concerned, do your best possible. Try to convey emotion on every track. If you get frustrated and bogged down by “sussing out” the project, simply walk away for a while. I go pour a glass of Jameson and take deep breaths.
Q: How long did Square One take to record?
A: Square One began in 2014, with a song list. Many of which never made the record. Then, I started tracking with just piano and guitar. The drums were programmed with Addictive Drums software, while the bass was later programmed with an Apple Logic stock Fender Precision sample. Once I had a good vibe on each track, I stepped up to the mic, and sang my ass off. Many of those tracks were recorded, and re-recorded. Some tracks (which I recorded in Ableton Live), I lost in the Great PC Computer Blue Screen Crash of 2015, and had to start over. That was frustrating, to say the least. So, I switched to Mac. I had a solid record by the end of 2015, but it wasn’t perfect. Last month, I went back to add some parts, remix the entire record, and then got it mastered. And so, as of 2019, I have Square One – Deluxe Edition, complete and perfect in my ears. So, 5 years?
Q: Tell us a bit about your home studio..?
A: I have a modest home studio. I run Apple Logic as my DAW with a Focusrite audio interface. I use Arturia, Pianoteq, and Lounge LIzard plug-ins; Addictive Drums software, and I play a Nord Electro 6. I recorded the acoustic with a Martin, because I love the warmth of its tone. Everything miked was with an SE Electronics condenser mic.
Q: What was your first guitar? Do you still have/play it?
A: My first guitar was an Alvarez Jazz dreadnought. I hocked it many years ago. I miss it dearly.
Q: Perhaps in some unspecified amount of time, your musical career explodes in the best of ways…what does that look like for you?
A: Somebody famous says, “Hey, I want to record that song of yours on my next record!” Then it’s off to sell the farm and buy a bank! And repeat…
Q: You get to collaborate with anyone of your choosing. Who is it?
A: Dan Fogelberg (RIP)
Q: Your favorite album of all time?
A: Easy: Point of Know Return – Kansas.
Q: Your favorite song of all time?
A: Space Oddity – Bowie (RIP). “Bowie at the Beeb” version.
Q: What would you like fans to know about you that they’re most likely unaware of?
A: I’m bipolar, so please take my music with a glass of water. LOL
Q: Any shout-outs you wanna make?
A: Absolutely, Brian Keaveny – for being the best sounding board any musician could ask for. Paul Gandolfi – for his invaluable help with co-mixing this record. My current band FAZE (@dfwfaze). Thank you to Connor and Meg for singing on Ghost Writer with me. And last but not least, to John and Shane of South of Reality. These guys are all the greatest!
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I’d love to shout out to my family. For my Dad, (RIP). For my mother, who finally came to understand my obsession with rock & roll. For my beautiful wife, who supports me endlessly and honestly. And for my two sons, who are my meaning of life.
Regarding Square One, listen (download) the whole thing, it will make more sense to you.