For the last two decades, Connor Bell has continued down the musical rabbit hole following his sonic muse under the name Shedding. His current outing, Plod and Play Vol. 2 was recently released via the Obsolete Staircases label, the follow up to Vol. 1 in the series released by City State Tapes approximately three years ago. Bell’s style has evolved dramatically over the years to include a variety of instrumentation and formats, with bit of Shedding follow more traditional singer-songwriter or indie pop paths, or his current work, which explores the world of modular synthesis. We caught up to ask him about “Strain, Sold,” the opening track to side 2 of his tape, which you can sample below.
Never Nervous: How did Plod and Play Vol. 2 come together? Was it composed as a part of a series, or is that incidental?
Connor Bell: For several years in the early 2000s I became obsessed with a Reaktor patch called Kant designed by a talented dude in Europe named Ernest Meyer. Even though it wasn’t my own design, I really clicked with the workflow and architecture within the patch. It wasn’t even that I entirely understood it, but that mystery really further captivated me. Anyway, it allowed me to pursue loose semi-improvised tone poems that were really satisfying almost as an exercise in synthesis.
Over time, they just started to pile up and I realized that despite the shared wiggly nature, they tended to evoke the feeling of either playful little critters or plodding larger creatures. I initially had the idea of dividing those into two distinct releases, but mixing them up probably made a more dynamic collection of songs and they’re still pretty cohesive despite my binary understanding of the tunes.
When Nick approached me about the first tape on City State, I thought it was a good opportunity to map it out with at least one other volume in mind. So it involved a lot of time spent trying to think about the best way to sequence the tracks in a way that had balance between multiple volumes. Dustin offered to put something out on Obsolete Staircases and I wanted to get the second volume out as a companion.
NN: Let’s talk about “Strain, Sold”, the first track on side two of the cassette. What is the primary melody that we’re hearing? What is the instrumentation there?
CB: Every song was the same instrument, the patch described above. I don’t honestly know what the primary melody is in any of these tunes. The modulation within the patch gets pretty nutty with the number of envelopes and LFOs so while it’s basically a little duophonic tone poem with maybe two or three chords that are being arpeggiated at most, there’s a fair amount of complexity and depth that makes it feel like a lot more than what it actually is.
NN: You have what would seem like an infinite variety of sounds at your disposal. How do you hone in one thing? What goes into that selection?
CB: That’s definitely a chore and something that I struggle with. I really have no idea why I stick with and pursue certain things and ignore other directions or sounds. That’s probably why I’m slow sometimes. I guess it’s largely instinct. What satisfies me in the moment or whether it suits some larger goals that I’m working towards is probably the central factor in answering your question.
NN: Tell us how you process these sounds. What tools do you use?
CB: The beauty, from my perspective, about this release was the purity and simplicity of it all. This was a super intense little synth at the time on my old clamshell iBook. It was so demanding these tunes are recorded at 22.05 khz rather than 44.1 khz to reduce the load on my computer’s processor. All in all though, there was no processing at all. It was very direct and intuitive composition: feeling things out, adjusting the patch at the same time as I was forming little melodies and the ‘composition’.
After a few hours, I’d just record a pass or two and move on. Songs would range from thirty seconds to four minutes and for compiling them into the tape sides I’d trim and do a bit of crossfading to perfectly fit the four sides of fifteen minutes. It’s sort of weird that the impermanence at the time of not saving the patch sort of foreshadowed what I love so much about the modular more recently.
NN: What goes into naming? Does the name “Strain, Sold” mean anything in particular? How does it mirror the feel that you were shooting for?
CB: Shoo, this song might be fifteen years old, so I can’t recall for sure. I can say, it still sounds like a beast of burden to me. Some large farm animal that is working hard. That animal is often sold at auctions to labor for someone else.
“The imperfection was sort of the point in a way, which alleviated that normal stress of more carefully composed songs.”
NN: How do you know when a composition is complete?
CB: I don’t. I just stop. I think having worked with perfectionists and struggling with that myself, I’ve had to fight that urge. With the Plod and Play series, it felt so uniquely natural to stop when I stopped. I suppose the imperfection was sort of the point in a way, which alleviated that normal stress of more carefully composed songs.