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By Mandolin Cafe
November 7, 2010 - 5:30 pm
I had the pleasure of meeting Don Julin the first time back in 2005 at Mandofest in Lawrence, Kansas. What impressed me about him was his low-key, unassuming posture as an extremely competent artist harboring an intense curiosity and a quiet energy enveloped with a Midwest-raised humility.
It was clear he was on a path to success on a larger stage, but one could tell he wasn't going to travel it in the "normal" way. He pioneered live looping years before it had become vogue, composed for and played on stage with other instruments outside of the typical folk genre (like cello, horns, and B-3 organ), and dabbled in electronica, although not for gimmick or sensation, but the pursuit of real and unique musics. Mandolin outside the box, but still, mandolin with the prerequisite requirements of tone, technique, and to a deceivingly large degree, ingredients of tradition.
I'm always personally interested following artists compelled to push boundaries and challenge convention, especially when they can pull it off like the new "rules" were really there all along. Don has carved his new role as an internationally successful producer, teacher, performer, and composer—a lot of hats to wear for a simple mandolinist. He's an inspiration to us all, and a captain in the charge to do something different with our little eight-string wonder.
— Ted Eschliman
Writer/Music Industry Consultant
Hoagy Carmichael's Skylark, from Don Julin's 2001 recording Tractor.
Mandolin Cafe: Traverse City, Michigan isn't exactly a large metropolitan area. That cuts down on employment possibilities. How do you make a living as a mandolin player?
Don Julin: I can break it down into four main headings, only three of them are mandolin specific.
1. Playing gigs. All kinds of gigs: weddings, concerts, festivals, wineries, restaurants, community events, etc. I'm currently playing with The Neptune Quartet, The Claudia Schmidt Funtet, Joe Wilson and the True Falsettos, The Retroback Sextet and The Don Julin Quartet, along with many solo gigs both electrified with a phrase sampler and "old school" with an acoustic mandolin and a microphone. There are a large number of upscale eateries in Traverse City and surrounding areas. I end up playing background music in many of them.
This area is also becoming a destination for princess weddings. You know the type. Horse drawn carriages, waiters carrying platters of hors d'oeuvres, huge white circus tent that seats 300 guests that have flown in from all over the world. The Neptune Quartet plays many of these. We play some old romantic tunes like When I Fall in Love, My Romance, Our Love is Here To Stay, etc., while guests are arriving and being seated. Then we play processional and the recessional music. Pachelbel's Canon in D has been very, very, good to me. We continue playing a mix of jazz, blues, bossa, fiddle tunes, Beatles tunes, fun stuff through cocktails and dinner. We eat lobster and steak and go home. The second band takes over at that point and does the first dance and has to work their butts off for the next four hours.
One of the more interesting projects is The Retroback Sextet. It's the house band for a weeklong film festival in Granada, Spain that features classic films. Past festivals have featured Humphrey Bogart, Audry Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, etc. Last year we learned some of the great music from these films and incorporated it into a multimedia opening night ceremony that was broadcast on Eurovision. We'll be going back in February, 2011.
Retroback Sextet in Spain. Photo courtesy of Ron Getz.
2. Teaching mandolin. I have a private teaching studio were I teach 20-30 students. I recently began offering private lessons over the internet using Skype. I teach mostly mandolin but some guitar students as well. I focus on fundamentals: timing, reading, theory, tone, and proper left and right-hand technique. I feel that if a player has good, solid technique and the appropriate theory, they can play whatever type of music they are attracted to. Bluegrass, Jazz, Celtic, Classical, Blues, Choro, all have stylistic elements unique to their form but good tone and solid timing are needed in any music. As a result of all of these mandolin students in such a small town, Traverse City Michigan is home to a newly formed mandolin orchestra. I conduct and arrange the music for our group, 88 Strings. We're 24 members strong at this time. We'll play a few concerts in early December.
3. Writing, recording, and licensing music for film and TV. I started doing this about ten years ago. I currently work with a handful of publishers. Sometimes a music publisher or music supervisor will have a specific request like "Italian Dining" or "Hunting and Fishing" music. Other times they are less specific and if they like the piece they may shop it around to see where it may fit. I have had placements on HBO, VH1, MTV, NBC, Showtime, Bravo, National Geographic Explorer, Fox Sports and many others along with being a regular contributor to NPR's All Things Considered. I recently licensed a tune for a film being made in Liverpool about two rival football teams.
4. Recording engineer. I have always been very intrigued with recorded sound. I love the way that recorded sound can be faithful to the acoustic performance or an entirely different experience. I see the recording process as a canvas. Sometimes being a realist is the way to go but sometime we need to create some illusions to take the listener on a more interesting journey. I don't do this as much as in the past but I still get a few interesting jobs each year. In the last year I recorded and mixed Claudia Schmidt's CD Promising Sky, mixed an indie feature length film, and worked as a sound mixer/boom operator for a pilot episode of a post-apocalyptic zombie slasher film. I still record all of my CD releases and all production music in my home studio.
You might call this some sort of juggling act and it is. I consider myself very blessed to be able to experience all of the awesome things, people and places that would not have been available to me if I had gone the route of a regular 9-5 job, assuming of course I could have gotten one.
Neptune Quartet. L-R: Don Julin, Crispin Campbell, Glenn Wolff and Angelo Meli.
Mandolin Cafe: You had particular success with an original composition entitled Mr. Natural a few years ago. Who is Mr. Natural, and where might we have heard this piece of music?
Don Julin: Mr. Natural is a comic book character created by R. Crumb. Mr. Natural, Keep on Truckin,' and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were all featured in the counterculture, underground, Zap Comix of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mr. (Fred) Natural was an unreliable guru that had renounced the material world, living off anything he could get in exchange for his nuggets of wisdom.
This song was written in 2000 the night before a recording session with guitarist Ron Getz. We gathered at the studio and played through a bunch of jazz standards with our quartet consisting of drums, bass, guitar, and mandolin. I suggested we try this new tune of mine. We recorded two takes and the second take is on the CD Mr. Natural.
I took this recording to a 2001 music conference in Los Angeles to see if any of my music could be useful in film and TV. The song was very well received by industry professionals. I licensed it to a publisher that supplied music for various types of productions, including TV commercials. About a year later my wife Kelly heard this tune on a TV commercial. Soon after that I started receiving emails from around the country from friends saying that they had heard Mr. Natural on a commercial for a male enhancement product. It had been licensed for use in a series of Maxoderm commercials. These ads ran for a few years on cable channels that had a viewing audience of middle-aged men. You know, anything from fishing shows to kick boxing.
My favorite story about Mr. Natural is when I had a chance to perform this tune on stage with David Grisman and Mike Marshall at the 2009 Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz. I introduced the song and to my surprise Dawg said "I knew that guy." Apparently R. Crumb's characters were loosely based on real life people that were part of the San Francisco hippie scene. John Baxter from Mandozine recorded the concert from his cell phone or some low resolution camera. It's still floating around the internet.
Don Julin performs Mr. Natural with David Grisman and Mike Marshall at the 2009 Mandolin Symposium, with Don playing "Crusher," David Grisman's mandolin. Video by John Baxter.
Mandolin Cafe: Your film and TV work extends far beyond the Mr. Natural gig. What are some other projects where your compositions have appeared?
Accidentally On Purpose (NBC)
Katie Morgan's Sex Tips (HBO)
Scott Baio is 45 and Single (VH1)
Real World Road Rules (MTV)
The View (NBC)
How Do I Look (Style Network)
Sexual Healing (Showtime)
Kathy Griffin Show (Bravo)
Thanksgiving Unstuffed (National Geographic Explorer)
Beyond The Glory (Fox Sports)
Sucre Sale (Canada)
A Cemetery Special (PBS)
Dale Earnhardt Special (WTVC)
Flowers Uncut (Learning)
Rachel Zoe Project (Bravo)
Reality Hell (Style Network)
Cho Show (Logo)
Widgame Nation (Outdoor Channel)
NPR's All Things Considered
Halv Atta Hos Mig (Sweden)
Outlaw Inlaws (Canada)
Grand re-opening of the State Theater in Traverse City, commissioned by film maker Michael Moore.
Played on a session for "Capitalism, A Love Story," but that tune did not make the final edit.
Hermann Miller Corp. (Internet Ad Campaign)
Unitarian Universalists Association of Congregations (Drive Time Essays CDs)
Bioneers Radio Program (NPR)
The Grand Vision (Northern Michigan Land Use Video)
Black Star Farms (Ice Wine Video)
With These Hands (Indie Film)
Local Flavor (Maine on-demand)
Reds and Blues: The Ballad of Dixie and Kenny (UK feature film in production)
I just finished writing some music for a publisher that supplies music to many of Oprah's productions.
Mandolin Cafe: You gig with just about every imaginable instrumental combination: pianos, horns, drummers, cellos, steel guitars, Hammond B-3 organs, etc. What are some tips you can share that make you in demand for otherwise non-predictable roles as a mandolinist?
Don Julin: Wow, that is a tough question. I will give it a try. I think it comes down to three main things:
1. Music theory. I know this topic brings out the blank stare with many of my students, but let's face it, there is a method to the madness. A good understanding of basic concepts like keys, chords, time signatures, and common chord progressions can go a long way.
2. Fundamentals of playing mandolin. I am strong believer in good left and right-hand technique. Just something simple like holding the pick a certain way can dramatically improve your tone. Understanding pick direction and proper left-hand fingering should not be underestimated.
3. A good understanding of many music styles. This can be broken down into three basic areas. Rhythmic characteristics: this would include things like tempo, 2 or 4 beats to the bar, swing or straight eighth notes, back beat, clave or some other defining quality of the groove. Harmonic characteristics: are there simple major and minor chords, more complex jazz type chords, or maybe drone or static harmonic quality? What are some of the common chord progressions in this style of music? Production characteristics: is this music acoustic or electric? Does mandolin usually appear in this music? If not, what role could the mandolin play? If the music is electric, are there electronic effects such as echo or distortion that are associated with this style of music?
To respond to your question about any tips on playing mandolin in unconventional roles, take it ALL in and study the music you are about to play. Don't play bluegrass style chop chords if you want to sound like Bill Evans. Learn how the music works and try to assume the role of one of the instruments normally associated with that music. If you are playing electric music, listen to electric players to see how they are using amplifiers or even how they attack the strings in a different manner. If you are playing modern jazz, listen to how piano players comp chords under the soloist. If you are playing funky music, listen to James Brown and figure out how he arranged two guitars and learn to assimilate those parts. If you are playing pop music, learn every tune you can by The Beatles. When you arrive at a gig or audition, listen first to see what style the band is playing in. If you have done your homework you will know something about the characteristics of that style. Try to play in that style, whether it is some licks, or chord voicings, or rhythm elements of the groove.
L-R: Don Julin, David Collini, Glenn Wolff, Angelo Meli.
Mandolin Cafe: You received a Specialist Certificate in Arranging from the Berklee College of Music in 2008. What was that experience like?
Don Julin: I studied Arranging and Film Scoring through Berklee on-line. The arranging courses were an in-depth study of understanding the history and evolution of different music styles. I came away from it with a much better understanding of how traditional music styles are blended over time to create new modern styles. We studied traditional Brazilian Samba, Afro-Cuban Cha Cha, American Jazz, and traced these influences on contemporary styles including Southern Soul (Stax Records), Northern Soul (Motown), Funk (James Brown), Disco, even Hip Hop.
This course mainly consisted of analyzing and creating music in each of these traditional styles, then blending them with other styles resulting in something fresh and modern. We analyzed what makes a melody swing. As an experiment, try scoring The Days of Wine and Roses and play it back through your computer. If you write it the way it appears in the books it won't swing. By adding the proper rhythmic and harmonic elements to the song it will begin to swing. The same applies for any style. For instance, once you understand the basic function/patterns of Brazilian rhythm instruments, Surdo, Pandiero, Tamborim, Go-Go bell, it's easy to see where strumming or comping patterns for bossa nova or choro originate. Even Bluegrass could be considered a modern blended form. It seems to be accepted knowledge that Bluegrass is a blend of Scotch-Irish fiddle tunes, southern gospel singing, and jazz and blues music of African-Americans. So even popular mandolin forms of music may not be as traditional as you may think. I clearly hear reggae and rock in Sam Bush's music and Latin, Jazz, and Funk influences in Dawg Music. I've recently been listening to the Indian mandolinist U. Shrinivas. He is blending traditional Indian music with contemporary western harmony and even some hip-hop rhythms. One sure thing about music, is that it is always evolving from a melting pot of other existing music styles. I would recommend these on-line courses for anyone looking to expand their understanding of music.
Mandolin Cafe: When you were a featured act at Mandofest in 2005 you were just getting started playing solo with a phrase sampler. Describe that setting and sound to those that might not be familiar with that kind of setup.
Don Julin: Phrase samplers or loopers are quite common now but 5 or 10 years ago they were just becoming popular. The idea is that you have a digital recorder that you can run with your feet. On a very simple level you hit the record button with your foot and record a part for a song, maybe the chords, maybe a bass line, or maybe just some sort of percussion sound. You play this first layer live for the length of the form. When you are at the top of the form you hit the record button again and this plays a recording of the first layer. At this point you can record another layer or just play live over the first layer. You are free to add as many layers as you want but can't delete any. Everyone has a different idea of what the best use of this technology is but if you use your imagination and have very good timing you can create some interesting sound sculptures.
Mandolin Cafe: You've been associated with an old Gibson A model mandolin but seems you've had various ownership stints with an Eastman, Godin acoustic/electric, possibly others, and of late appears you're amplifying a Harmony Batwing. What's in the stable of instruments these days?
Don Julin: Acoustic Mandolins: I still have my '23 Snakehead and use it for most of my recordings. Over the past few years I have been looking for a good F hole mandolin to contrast the Gibson oval hole sound. This search or case of MAS led me to a Flatbush V4, Eastman 605, Phoenix Neoclassical, Laura Ratcliff A model. All were very good instruments. My search has (temporarily) ended with the purchase of a Chris Stanley A model, #46. It has a great tone and lots of it. His mandolins are very traditional in sound and look. They are not over-decorated or flashy in any way. I had Big Joe in Nashville put bigger frets on it and it appears to be a keeper. Tone!
Electric Mandolins: I still have a Godin A8, which has been a gig workhorse for about 10 years. I have owned an embarrassing number of electric mandolins recently. Blue Star Mandoblaster, Jonathan Mann 5-string, Jonathan Mann 4-string, J.L. Smith 4-string, Eastwood Mandocaster, Epiphone Mandobird, two Harmony Batwings—one set up for 4 strings and one set up for 8. The Godin A8 is very good if you need an acoustic type of sound but louder. The Eastwood and both Batwings sound great when plugged into a vintage tube amp.
The ones that have survived: 1923 Gibson Snakehead, 2009 Chris Stanley "A" #46, Godin A8, J.L. Smith 4-string, Eastwood Mandocaster (new bridge, new frets), Harmony Batwing, Harmony Batwing set up for 4 strings.
Coolest non-mandolin recent acquisition: 1939 Vega Archtop Tenor Guitar.
Mandolin Cafe: Creating original music for television and film might sound like a fairly romantic venture for a musician but we're guessing the reality is it's a competitive and unpredictable business with virtually no financial guarantees.
Don Julin: Music licensing is a bit of a gamble in that you do not know where your music is going to play. I will try to make this easy but it gets complicated. When you license a piece of music to be used in a video production, there are two possible income streams: (1) Up-front money or sync money or (2) Back-end money or performance royalty. Up-front or sync money is a fee paid to sync the music to the video. Back-end or performance royalty money is paid by Performance Rights Organizations such as BMI or ASCAP for each broadcast. This back-end money, due to reruns or long running ads can over time, amount to much more than the sync fee.
The rates vary from Network prime-time (very good) to local (nothing) and cable being somewhere in between. The best case scenario is to write something like Suicide is Painless (theme for the TV series MASH) and have it play on prime time for many years. Commercials also can be very good at generating performance royalty income. Just ask Bob Seeger about Like A Rock used in a Chevy Truck ad or Iggy Pop about Lust For Life used in a Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ad. These ran on network prime-time for quite a while. Mr. Natural ran over 20,000 times but most of them were late night cable so I did not make a million dollars. Maybe next time. On the other hand, my top single money earning song so far was used for only 17 seconds on an HBO show. In a way, writing production music can be likened to Aesop's The Tortoise and The Hare. People like to say "all you need is one hit song," but in the production music world it's more like "all you need is a thousand placements." While the million dollar hit song may be a ubiquitous riddle, my royalty statements are growing a little every year.
Mandolin Cafe: What did you learn from the Mr. Natural experience?
Don Julin: Keep your eye on the big picture. If you want to work as TV & Film composer you need to keep writing, build a large library of music, and don't sweat the little stuff. At this point my BMI works catalog is about 200 tunes and expanding.
Another key piece of knowledge to be aware of is BMI and ASCAP pay out money based on a 1960s model which assumes that the big 3 networks really are getting more viewers. With hundreds of cable channels, Netflix, TiVo, podcasts, downloads, and on-demand, we are changing the way we watch TV and the royalty model is in the process of being updated to align with how things are really functioning in the production world... but it is a slow process. If only rules and regulation paradigms changed as fast as technology!
Mandolin Cafe: What's on tap for you in 2011?
Don Julin: I will be returning to Granada, Spain in February with the Retroback Sextet for the 3rd annual Retroback Film Festival.
I have two CDs that I hope to finish in 2011: another collaboration with the amazing guitarist Ron Getz, and a follow up to my solo CD Tractor.
As a mandolin teacher I look forward to contributing to "Tips and Tricks," a weekly column at jazzmando.com. My plans are to continue to add more free mini-lessons to my YouTube lesson hub and to meet many mandolin players in cyberspace via Skype.
In addition to lessons via Skype, Don has made select free lessons available at his YouTube Lesson Channel.
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