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"No" is a Complete Sentence: A Q&A with Ted Giffin
Posted September 03, 2015 by Brett Alderman
WRITTEN BY
Brett Alderman
ON
September 03, 2015

All photos by Brett Alderman

It’s hard to imagine a better place to sit outside and interview a veteran of the Hoosier music scene than Bloomington’s Soma Coffeehouse on a mild August evening. The weather was cool and the coffee was hot as I sat with Ted Giffin and discussed his prolific years as an artist and musician working throughout Indiana.

 

Spending any time at all on his website, it’s clear that Giffin stays busy with his artistic pursuits. “I do stuff everyday creatively. That’s my intent. No matter what it is, drawing, music, photography, video; just keep at it.” I was eager to find out how he works.

 

Ted was already sitting outside of Soma when I arrived. “I will be wearing a brown hat,” his last email told me. A tall coffee and a small sketchbook were on the table in front of the man wearing a black suit.

 

He was enthusiastic to begin and once I returned with my coffee, he began flipping through the pages to show me some of the sketches he’s been working on recently.

 

Listen to Giffin's recent album Run This into the Dirt above

 

Brett Alderman: You create in a variety of mediums. Is there a routine to how you work?

 

Ted Giffin: For me, the only routine is walking dog, waking up, praying, and having coffee. I sleep 8 hours and then I’m up doing it. It suffers if you don’t chill out. You’ve got to have downtime. Most of the stuff that happens at night. 7am is usually bedtime.

 

BA: There’s not much planning, it’s more spur of the moment?

 

TG: It’s more the path of least resistance. Some days it’s easier to grid this out [points to his sketchbook] and draw, and some days that seems hard, but I can whip out 6 tracks of one song. This [drawing] takes concentration. It’s all meditative though. Like today I’ve been doing The Velvet Underground stuff. I did “Sunday Morning: and “I’ll be Your Mirror.”

 

BA: Where do you work mostly?

 

TG: I’ve got a room where I work in; it’s like a back room. I’ve got my ink, my paints, my pencils… everything is in that room. That’s where I work. That’s where I live, kinda.

 

BA: Do you find inspiration from one medium to another? Like a piece of art makes you want to create music or vice versa?

 

TG: I think it all feeds into each other somehow. I think the concentration I can do, like with getting [drawing] tight, following tradition and all that shit feeds in, for me anyway. Poetry feeds into music; feeds into art. I try to go with the flow as much as I can.

 

 

BA: You’ve been making music for a long time. When did you start recording?

 

TG: I started playing guitar in 1985 and immediately wanted to write. I had a friend who threw me some chords. Within two years I was playing with him and some other people I admired and we started a band called The Ambient Zebras. We played Indy, Terre Haute, Vincennes, and Bloomington. We were all young kids, 18, and there was this thing downtown Indianapolis, the Kent State Rally. We went up there and had a really good show; we made NUVO. We flipped out on each other. The personal tensions just went to hell. I started recording in like 1988. A lot of the recordings [on my site] are just recorded live to a little tape player and a mic. That’s all it was and I kept all the recordings; digitized them.

 

BA: How do you capture your sound now?

 

TG: I use Adobe Audition. I have this cardioid mic, a large diaphragm USB that picks up really nice. I just play my acoustic.

 

BA: Are you picky about guitars?

 

TG: With me, if we’re gonna talk gear, I’ve got two really cheap acoustics. One’s black, one’s white and they’ve got really bad action. They were like a $100 bucks and I can’t hock them, so they’re mine. I’ve got an old Behringer PA. I’ve got a Shure SM58, but I don’t really use that when I’m recording.

 

BA: What about other instruments?

 

TG: If you hear a bass, in the recent recordings, that’s me. I have an acoustic bass. Sometimes I use a drumming program, EZ Drummer and I can section it out and make it how I want it to sound. Most of the recent stuff is me and a tambourine. I’ll place it on the floor and use my foot. I’ll just beat it out if I want to use a backbeat. I played drums a little bit when I was in Indy. I don’t have an area where I can make that kind of noise. It would freak everybody out.

 

BA: There’s definitely a DIY aesthetic to your music. Do you use any lo-fi techniques to get your sound?

 

TG: No, There was a while in like 2000 when I was doing stuff; “The Tascam Recording Artist…”

 

BA: Do you miss collaborating with others?

 

TG: Fuck yeah. I like collaborating. For real. I don’t have anyone I’m doing with right now. I’m playing against myself, and that’s fuckin’ fun, but there’s something to the group thing. Music is about communication. I can communicate with myself all day and spin in my head, but if you and I are playing it’s talking. You should put that in [the interview] Ted’s open to playing with other musicians. He’s open if you can put up with him.

[Ted motions to the trio of musicians at the corner of Kirkwood and Grant.]

I’ll tell ya, what those guys are doing, busking, for me on Kirkwood is a training ground. I learned a lot by playing out on that street. On that corner or over there where they made new buildings. With the one group, called Scent of Sorrow. We used battery-powered amplifiers. I was out like 18 hours a day back then, 2003-2005. There was a splinter group from that called Dirty Girl Takes It with a female singer. I made like 40 or 50 bucks a day. For me it was the love of doing it. Fuckin, those songs are imbedded in my head. It’s like default mode for me.

 

 

BA: Were you playing covers or…

 

TG: No, our stuff was original. Most if it was stuff I had written.

 

BA: Were you writing on the street?

 

TG: Yeah we would write on the street. It’s funny; I’m about to turn 45. This was in my early to middle 30’s. These people were 18-21. They all, like, grew up and had kids and stuff. I didn’t.

 

BA: Any memorable moments from that era?

 

TG: I think it was in 2005, the winter. I actually got a propane tank to keep us warm. We set up on a corner, with the battery powered amps and starting doing our stuff. It was New Year’s Eve; Kirkwood was going nuts. We were having a freakin’ good set and the police shut us down because people were coming out of the bars with beer on the street. It was freakin’ crazy. They stopped me “you got to get a permit.”

 

BA: How did your time in the band end?

 

TG: It was a blast. I was a force in that band and I quit. I said fuck it I quit. They took the songs we were working on and went down to Athens. I don’t know what happened, we didn’t really talk about it, but it didn’t work out.

 

BA: You record a lot of cover songs. How did that get started?

 

TG: I had a guy named David Troxel. He plays on the street, but I learned a helluva lot. He’s on the street to pay the electric bill. That’s when I went into the cover thing. He was throwing Gershwin at me and I was getting it. I was playing bass or rhythm guitar and backing him up. That’s what started the cover thing.

I’ll show you, [pulls out a hardback notebook from his bag] this is a list; I’ve done all of these since December. This is my shit. It’s a list of my stuff and it comes from all different periods. I can do all of that off the top of my head.

[Ted pulls out a spiral bound book with papers tucked into folders or taped to other pages. It’s a series of lists, phrases and musical notation.]

This is all the music book stuff. This is a joke off of the Smiths, Louder Than Bombs. I just changed it to silence is louder than bombs. I either print or write it out. "'No' is a complete sentence." [Shows me the outside cover] This is the busker’s credo. This is how you’re supposed to be as a busker.

 

BA: What drives you to keep doing more covers?

 

TG: Why I’m doing all these covers. I’m just… So I can I’m trying to figure out how they did it, how they write. The way they write. Learn by doing other people’s stuff. I might not change the key but I’m going to it my way, because I’m me. A lot of these dudes are dead, right, and so I’m carrying on their spirit. Maybe if I pass away someone ‘ll hear my weird shit and carry it on. Like Lennon and these other guys are gone. The reason I like music, unless you record it, or even if you do, it’s gone once it’s made. Who knows if the power grid goes out? With art, I can scan it, but I’ve got hard copies.

 

BA: Anything you’ve discovered with the covers project?

 

TG: How’s it’s written? I don’t think so. I think I’m learning more about what I can do. I have a deeper voice than I used to. I’m learning about recording / playing against myself, the timbre of my voice and multi-tracking my voice to make it sound good without using tons of effects.

There’s this guy in town, Jesse Slocum, that’s been playing for like 55 years. He’s been busking since 1969. He’s heavy. I had a session with him a week or so ago. I was so pissed off. It was a 1, 4, 5 progression, some “Louie, Louie” type shit and he was substituting different C chords. Even though I’ve been playing guitar forever and a day. I couldn’t get it man. I wrote the music out and everything and I couldn’t get it. Even with a simple progression.

With these covers, I’m punk rock. I’m not that great. I’m learning my strengths.

 

 

BA: How much time are you spending on these projects?

 

TG: With most of these things, like recordings or music, my time period is 4 to 6 hours. I think that comes from Herron [School of Art]. The classes were three hours long.

[Pointing to his sketch book] I’m just trying to get form down. I get tight with this so I can unleash the color. I’ve got friends that are realists that are following traditions that go back six and seven hundred years. I decided to know that to a certain extent. I like Picasso and Matisse, and all the guys that deconstructed everything, but they knew the tradition. That’s been lost over the past 50 years. These people I admire know that. I’ve been thinking, “I need to get some of that.” I can break the rules because I knew ‘em.

 

To see more of Giffin’s work and hear current cover songs he’s recorded, head over to his website. Of his website, Giffin says, “The blog is cool. I’ve got people all over the planet checking me out and they’re all creative people doing their thing. It’s really like a virtual, weird-ass community.”

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