Interview: Alex Caswell

Alex Caswell is a psychedelic rock musician from North Carolina. He was born and raised in Raleigh, but since 2016 he’s been based in Asheville, where he established himself as not just a musician but a producer and recording engineer. He has an open mind when it comes to music, so not only does he love rock music, he also likes jazz and classical music and knows his music theory and is very detail-oriented in his approach to music. In late April 2023, he released his debut, a thematic album called Visualize. He played all the instruments, except for drums and he mixed and mastered all the tracks. Not only that, he designed the psychedelic looking cover art.

Overall, it’s a great psychedelic rock album worth listening to if you’re a fan of the genre. It’s an interesting listen too if you have synesthesia (sadly I don’t have it), which is when sounds have colour. Regardless, it’s best listened to on some good headphones. It reminds me of music I’ve reviewed in the past released by New York’s Children of Minerva and New Jersey’s Will Wiggins. There’s some jazzy, prog rock elements to it. My favourite tracks are “Third Eye Gemini”, “The Magic Lantern”, “The Kaleidoscopic Lighthouse”, “Peanut Butter and Jelly Days”, and “In 20/20”.

You can stream it on Spotify now:

We have Alex with us on the blog today to talk about his music and his journey as a musician.

Angie Moon: How would you describe your music to a new listener?

Alex Caswell: It probably depends on what music I think that someone listens to. Finding the angle or soft landing is the goal, I guess, if I want them to listen & not feel so insecure about it being judged as something that it’s not meant to be. For this first album, I think I’d begin by describing it as being heavily influenced by the late 1960’s and the psychedelic era. That kind of sets a fair expectation. For some people, like myself, that’s exciting sounding. However, for others, in terms of getting them to listen to it, it may be a complete nonstarter. At least, the person goes in knowing generally what to expect with that generic description. If I think they don’t listen to 1960’s music, I may make mention of the Beatles, or Pink Floyd, as being influential touchstones. With that said, I think it could be described as euphoric, and somewhat busy, which comes, in part, from the Wall of Sound style of production. I’d probably describe it as being catholic as well; not the religion. I’m not sure there is one dominant genre. To the extent there is, like labelling it rock, the terms becomes a catch all. As a result, if I’m going to use a term as a catch all, I just call it Psychedelic Rock-a genre open ended, and welcoming enough to experimentation, that  I think it fits. Lastly, I’d describe some songs as purple and other songs a yellowish, or blue, or red, and what not. For example, the 4th and 5th songs on the album are very purple; 4th is purple and blue & 5th is purple and brownish. Track 1 and 3 have a lot red, but track 3 has a lot yellow too.

Angie: How did you get started playing music? 

Alex: By listening. And by listening closely. The first music I remember hearing was Pink Floyd. It was one of the live recordings & what I distinctively remember hearing was what I describe as sounding like a spaceship landing. I believe it was some type of keyboard with an arpegiattor being processed with a stereo panner that made the arpegiattion keyboard part spin around the stereo image. It was super wide sounding. It sounded as if it was circling around your whole body and head. Listening closely, in a way, it is part of a performance. An audience, who is focused and listening closely, will effect a response or reaction from a performer that is similar to the reaction between a lead singer and the drummer, for example. More literally, I started playing music when my dad bought me a beginner acoustic guitar strung with nylon strings. I was about 9 or 10, I guess. I connected with the instrument, but it wasn’t a perfect fit. I don’t really like playing acoustic guitar. To the extent I do, it’s just as a vehicle to write a song. I also don’t like nylon strings. So, looking back, it makes sense that I didn’t fully connect with that instrument. I wanted an electric. After a few years, my dad bought me an electric strat-style guitar and I connected with it more and, as a result, began to play and practice more often. My dad plays guitar and I think he wanted to see me play the instrument as well. If that wasn’t the case, I’m not sure I would have gotten a guitar at 10. I connect with the instrument more than any other though. I might have asked for a Harpsichord in a different scenario. That might be my second favourite instrument. 

Angie: How did you get into classic rock? 

Alex: Simple answer? It might go back to experiences, like the Pink Floyd one, where I remember precisely where I was. More generally, my dad has pretty good taste in music. Furthermore, he bought a lot of music. He had a massive vinyl collection and a massive CD collection. There were times where he would go to the CD store daily, much to my mothers frustration. He sold the vinyl collection to an Italian collector who flew to the US to buy it. However, the CD collection was used daily by my dad. He would carry a case of CDs in the car and he would pick new ones in the morning. I guess, based on mood, which isn’t very different from myself. So, fairly regularly, I was listening to full albums, that I hadn’t heard and that you wouldn’t hear on the radio, when riding with him. As time went on, I grew into using his CD collection. I learned a lot there. He had a pretty broad collection too, but it was mostly made up of Rock music. Fortunately, he often had every album by bands that I loved.

Angie: What makes the music, fashion, and art of the 60s so special to you?

Alex: It’s kind of inherently special. All of it. It was a cultural explosion. It’s hard to deny. Look at today’s fashion. Is there anything special about what you see on the street and in the supermarket these days? I can’t remember which store had the quote inside their store or above the door, but it goes something like, “one should be a work of art or at least wear a work of art” [Note from Angie: I can’t recall the shop’s name, however I know that this is an Oscar Wilde quote]. Hope I didn’t butcher it. I think it was Granny Takes a Trip on Carnaby Street in Swinging London. That sums it up though, doesn’t it? Have cargo pants ever been sexy? Have cargo pants ever been a work of art? The fashion of the 1960’s is not only aesthetically appealing and shapely, it’s also always very colourful. Today, a grey T shirt is commonplace. I love the colourful variety that is found in most of 60s fashion. Never grey, never boring. I also love the the footwear of the 1960s and don’t really like modern footwear. I love Dylan/Beatle/Italian boots and moccasins and so on. I also love ascots. In short, 1960s fashion is fun to look at. Sometimes being stared at comes with it, and that can be awkward, but why wouldn’t you want to be pleasing, and fun, to look at? 1960’s fashion is almost always a delight to the eyes. Furthermore, going back to the catholic [note: there is a second definition of the word that means all-embracing, catholic with a lowercase ‘c’ means that] nature of my music, late 1960s music was very catholic. Everything was getting blended and the lines between genre became blurred. It’s when Blues became Rock. It’s when international and worldly music became blended with the pop music of the English speaking world; thanks in large part to the Beatles and George Harrison. It’s when feedback became an element of a performance and not just a mistake. Before the 60s, feedback was bad. Always. Hendrix, and other Rock guitar players, began using feedback as a musical device! I could go on and on. However, lastly, I’ll mention the changes, and developments, in music studios. In the 60s, bands could begin to focus, for the first time, on making records that are not able to be performed live. My dad probably first taught me this on one of those car rides, accompanied by the case of CDs. It changed the course of my life. I desperately want to play live. However, the idea of creating an album that can be made, or directed, by one person and can’t, or doesn’t need to be, performed live was appealing. Don’t have a band? No problem, you can play all the instruments. Can’t perform all these instruments live, without hiring a symphony of performers? No problem. The 1960s is where this change happened. I’ve been very influenced by the idea of studio albums that don’t have to be performed live. Using the studio as a musical instrument is what some people call it. This all came from the 60s. Thank the Lord!

Angie: As someone with a diverse taste in music, what would you suggest to a classic rock fan to get them to open their minds and appreciate other genres? 

Alex: My first instinct is to tell them to listen to the influences of their influences. Who’s the hero of your hero, you could say. It will typically involve influences that are outside one’s genre. For example, I really studied the hell out of Hendrix’s influences. I wanted to know about everything that influenced him. I came to learn how broad it was. He took from everybody. He informally studied, and borrowed from, surf music (Dick Dale), jazz (Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Kenny Burrell), country (Clarence White), soul (Curtis Mayfield), folk (Bob Dylan), blues (Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf), Rock ‘n’ Roll (Little Richard & Elvis), classical (Handel), and Western swing (Bob Wills). The easiest entry into a new genre is through the people that already influence you. You’re already greased up. I don’t really love surf music, but I have a greater appreciation for it as a result of studying my own influences, like Hendrix. Another example, that was fateful for me, is the Allman Brothers. I can’t listen to Live at the Fillmore [Note from Angie: I think the album title is At Fillmore East, great live album!] without thinking about Kind of Blue. My dad told me when I was young that Dickey Betts and Duane Allman were listening to, and influenced by, Miles Davis and Coltrane and the Kind of Blue record. He wasn’t wrong. Although, I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant at the time. I wasnt familiar enough with Miles Davis or Kind of Blue. It did leave me curious. I can now confirm. I’ve studied Kind of Blue formally and informally. It’s absolutely part of the DNA of the early Allman Brothers sound. The music of Kind of Blue is very modal. In fact, it was kind of a response to Bebop and the music that Miles had been playing with Charlie Parker in the 1940s in New York City. Bebop involved very fast harmonic changes. Key changes pass by like cars on a highway. However, Miles, in the 50s went in a modal direction, where there were far less harmonic/key changes. He would explore the musical mode, instead, like on So What. This is the ground floor for the lead guitar playing of Duane & Dickey. This was my window into Jazz. This is how I came to understand it, hear it, and love it. As a result, I do have a bias for that era of Jazz, and I listen to bebop less, but it was super important in my own growth.

Angie: What is the music scene like in Asheville, North Carolina?

Alex: I wouldn’t know. I say that half joking. I spend most nights working on my own music & I’m quite reclusive. Occasionally, a concert by a band that I already love gets booked & I buy tickets in advance. For example, The Smile, featuring members of Radiohead, is playing the civic centre in about a month & I have a ticket for that. However, I miss out on the spontaneity of going out and seeing a new local band that I’ve never heard of that I would go see again. So, I admit some level of ignorance of the local bands & the scene. From what I have seen in my 6 years living here is a lot of jam music, inspired largely by the Grateful Dead, and a lot of earthy, roots type, music (for example, Bluegrass, Americana, and Southern/Soul music influenced Rock, which has an Allman Brothers songwriting type of sound). There’s a lot of guitar music here, as evidenced by the Christmas Jam, hosted yearly by Warren Haynes (member of the later lineup of the Allman Brothers). We have a local symphony, which I’m really grateful for. Seeing them perform Brahms First was really intense. There isn’t much of a “psychedelic rock” scene though. Although, I speculate that the area would be potentially welcoming to it if a group, or a few groups, got it happening. That’s a hope of mine, but it’s more a pipe dream than anything else. One thing that I can say is that I like a lot of the national & international acts that come through here. My first night moving here, I got to see Dungen play. Honestly, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Their guitar Reine Fiske is one of the best guitarist alive. There weren’t many people there and I got to see them, front & centre stage, my first night here. That’s kind of reflective of the scene. It’s good and it’s still growing. In some way it’s still recovering from the pandemic; a few beloved venues closed. I saw Tame Impala in 2019 at the civic centre & again in 2022 for the 2 night run at the civic centre. Any place that gets Tame Impala for 3 nights in the span of 3 years is treating me good. Most places don’t get a single Tame show. I got to see Tame 3 times at a venue so close that I literally walked home after the show. We have some great venues that do a great job of booking here. Show that I regret missing the most? Bob Dylan. Twice. Even Dylan passes through!

Angie: How popular would you say classic rock is in North Carolina? 

Alex: I think it’s really popular. You still have radio stations in every town dedicated to it. Although, time marches on, of course. It’s likely a little less popular than it was 10 years ago. The Stones came to Charlotte last year & had no issue filling a whole football stadium. McCartney did the same thing at the same stadium. So, it’s far from dead. People still have a strong desire to hear that type of music. And it’s not at all just boomers. The Stones show had plenty of young people at it. With that said, I’m not sure how popular it is with below 18. There might be a steep fall off around that age. 

Angie: What was it like recording Visualize?

Alex: It was a lot of things. The songwriting and recording process was fairly fun and exciting. However, the mixing process was difficult and involved a lot of learning. First off, making the commitment to delete parts is hard. You can love a part, but also come to realise it’s not helping the song or it’s clutter or something. Second off, I’ve only been recording for a few years. That whole time I’ve pretty much been slowly working on this album. It’s been a massive experiment. It’s kind of served as a laboratory for me to try a bunch of things, from songs & their composition, to recording and mixing. I did a lot of experimenting and I really hope people enjoy what it is. Very often, I was fixing an experiment gone bad. Wish I was joking. I should have gotten stronger backing tracks. Also, the drum parts are all completely unrehearsed. The day I recorded the drummers, on any given day, was also the first time the drummer was hearing the song & figuring out what to play. Perhaps it adds its own character that’s worth loving. But, it really charted the course of the whole album and how I finished it. I never went back for a second go with any of the drummers. What I had was what I used. If I felt like a section didn’t have a strong drum overdub, I would consider dropping out the drums entirely. I guess I have more of an idea what I would do differently. However, I hope there’s something to be loved about what it is. I hope it’s an album that people can fall in love with. Although, worst case scenario, I learned how to make an album & everything following this will be rewarded for that development.

Angie: What inspired the writing and the theme of the album?

Alex: 2020, the year; the album was originally going to be called “In 2020”. And what a great year 2020 was! (Laughs) Not quite. I always thought it was kind of interesting or curious. It’s more cute and stupid, nothing deep. 2000 is probably an even cooler year. However, I began thinking about doing a concept album for 2020 in the 2010’s; Vision obviously being the theme. The idea would cross my mind and sometimes the idea would grow in bits. The earliest bit I remember was the two words “Kaleidoscope Lighthouse”. Just the two words. I liked how it sounded and it related to the idea of vision nicely. Sometimes a song can begin like that. A quick vision (winks). A few words or a sentence that you find interesting, curious, or inspiring. By late 2018, I was sure I wanted to do it. I planned on having it out on January 1st, 2020. Of course things didn’t turn out that way. All the songs were written by early 2019. I was recording drums and backing tracks during 2019. That took some time because I had trouble finding a drummer with my shoestring budget. That delayed things. I didn’t have money and didn’t know many people. Eventually I found a few drummers that helped. I began adding overdubs and 2020 rolled around with me still working on it. The pandemic hit in March 2020 and that changed everything. I knew that the year was fucked. And the whole cute thing of seeing things “in 2020” turned rotten. I knew nobody would love this year or find it cute. The whole idea began to feel rotten. Furthermore, I had to change jobs because of the pandemic and I found myself working more than I ever had-60 hour weeks were commonplace that year. I stopped working on the album for about 9 to 12 months. The pandemic made me see everything different. I knew I wouldn’t be performing it if I finished it. Best way to put it is that I felt no rush to finish the album once the pandemic hit. The word play/novelty of the year, hindsight, and the album title and concept all felt too rotten. The album was already about vision. I didn’t have to rewrite anything. But I did move the cute little 2020 thing to the background. Lastly, visualize is the first part of a creative act. Even if you’re trying to do something random, you visualize what you don’t want to do. Visualizing comes even before planning. Vision, in this way, makes me think of deity and the ultimate creative act (all of creation, itself). I speculate that before creating the world, a creator visualized. Visualizing is mystical to me. Art is mystical. I don’t think God just created. By creating humans, a being capable of also creating, the act of creation is still unfolding. Creation happen and then stop. It’s still happening. That’s the way I see it. When a musician makes music, they are engaging in the unfolding of creation. I’ve always felt artist, poets, and musicians are closer to God than clergy. They are the teachers that I sit at the feet of.

Angie: What are your favourite tracks on the album?

Alex: I don’t have a quick answer. It’s hard to pick, for better and for worse. I think there’s a consistency but I don’t know that one is more a favourite than the rest. I’ll say “Peanut Butter & Jelly Days” or “Third Eye Gemini”. I’m proud of “Peanut Butter and Jelly Days” because it’s a concise statement, I like that I made a song that is less reliant on my wall of sound bias, and I spent very little time working on it. It’s a byproduct of me learning how to make an album. It’s the song that I finished last and reflects more accurately what I can do with a song today. 

Angie: What are your goals for the year?

Alex: Frankly, it’s to make a second record. It’s not to now go perform the debut album live, which more standard. This goes back to how I view the studio. It’s my home. Literally. My house is an open space room with mostly instruments and recording gear. There’s also insecurity brewing. I really do feel like I’ve learned how to make a record from start to finish. I genuinely feel like I could make a better record than the record than the record I’m about to put out. I feel like I still have to prove myself. And as I’ve told other people, I feel like I can make an album twice as fast. But making art really does involve commitment and committing to your ideas and then living with it. If you can’t do that, you become more of a critic or arm chair philosopher. Art is about doing what you can with what you have. Easier said than done though. I did my best with the tools I had at hand, I committed to finishing these songs, and I now feel like I can do it better and, ultimately, that’s my goal this year. Realistically, at best, I will have it finished by the end of year & released the following year (2024).

Angie: What is your proudest accomplishment as a musician? 

Alex: Finishing this album. It’s been fun at times. At other times, it’s been torture. I felt the consequences of my own mistakes. Sometimes an album is poorly recorded and it’s handed to a mixer who is left to sorting tracks out and fixing mistakes. In my case, I was left fixing my own mistakes and in many cases it wasn’t easy. None of the songs on the debut album were done to a click track. This was another source of torture. Cutting an album to a click track means you can cut and paste and everything is on a grid in the event that you have to move something around. Fixing issues without a click track and a grid means you’re kind of flying blind. Going back to 1960s music, almost none of that music was done to a click track. And to the extent that it was, it was a click track sent to the performers headphones. As a result, 1960s music a lot of ebb and flow with the tempo. It’s very natural. The chorus might speed up. The break section might have the band slow down. That’s how I wanted to cut my debut. Modern music is kind of rigid in terms of tempo. Some pop music automates these tempo changes onto a grid and the performers overdub their parts on top of the grid which is automated to have a click track speeding up. To me, this isn’t natural, and can squeeze the life out of the music. However, there’s no one-way that’s wrong or right. Electronic music is very hypnotic and doing it to a rigid tempo can enforce that hypnotic feeling. Some of my favourite records were cut to a click track. However, most of those records are not records from the 1960s. Instead, it’s stuff like Tame Impala, which I don’t think suffers from having a rigid tempo that doesn’t fluctuate. 

You can follow Alex on Facebook, Instagram, Bandcamp, and his website.

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