Rick Valentin has a long history in Champaign-Urbana – one that dates back to the late-eighties when he co-founded the alternative rock band Poster Children. Now based out of Normal, Illinois, Valentin returns to C-U tonight with his solo project Thoughts Detecting Machines.
We sat down with Valentin ahead of his show at Mike N Molly’s tonight to discuss his latest album Work the Circuits, the challenges of performing solo and his love for technology.
buzz: First, let’s talk about your latest project, Work the Circuits. How do you feel it stands out from your previous work?
Rick Valentin: It’s definitely different from what I’ve done in a band environment, because now it’s all me. I can’t hide or blame anyone else if something goes wrong. It’s all down to me, so I think the record is getting closer to what I want to do with Thoughts Detecting Machines. It’s still a work in progress, but I feel like I’m getting closer. I think that’s what makes it stand out. It’s not a band record, and I spent so much time writing songs in bands. I’m figuring out how to write songs by myself again. In the past it was me and three other people writing the songs, and if I couldn’t think of something or couldn’t figure out something, someone else would. We worked so well together, but now if I can’t think of what to do, I just have to wait until I figure out something. That was the big thing – filling in the gaps.
buzz: What was it like stepping into a solo career with Thoughts Detecting Machines?
RV: It’s frightening, and that’s kind of why I did it. I have never been super comfortable with singing and playing guitar. I’m not the kind of person who would be in the middle of a party, pull out a guitar and start singing. It was always being in a band, and having other people. I started working out parts of what I do. You know, exercising stuff I haven’t done before like singing by myself without any backup. No one has your back, and it’s very terrifying because it’s not like three or four musketeers where you got a small gang of people. It’s just you, alone, and if something goes wrong, it’s all on you. And that’s how it’s different in that respect. I love being in a band, but it was really comfortable being in a band. That for me is the worst thing – where I get too comfortable. You can always write new songs in the band. After a while it’s not necessarily easy, but if you’ve been playing with people for a song time, you just do what you always do. You don’t move forward. This really helped me figure out “oh, I could work a little more on the singing, I’ve got to step it up with the guitar playing. I have to make sure I’m sharp.” On top of this, when I’m playing live, there’s no one to cover my back. In that way, that’s what’s great about it, and it also means that I’m looking forward to playing, sometime in the future, in a full band again. You can learn a lot of stuff that you can bring back to the band.
buzz: What would your advice be for someone who is transitioning from a band to performing solo?
RV: My advice would be: if it’s something you want to do, try it! I guess for me, I just stopped having high stakes for it. I never really thoughts about it as a high stakes thing. It’s like: “okay, I’ll play. That’s what I do, that’s what I like to do.” The band is kind of the security blanket in a way, and If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You have to take chances when you’re being creative anyways. You’re always setting yourself up for possible failure, or possibly getting into a situation that’s scary. That’s what it was like for me the first time I went up on stage by myself. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I can’t think of anytime in my life where I have gotten up on a stage and it just being me. It’s terrifying, but I survive, and it wasn’t that bad. I also learned a lot of stuff. So I guess that’s my advice. Don’t over think it, just start doing it.
buzz: How did you come up with the idea of giving every record unique cover art?
RV: I have a background in art. I love graphic design as much as any part of being a musician. Being a musician is not only about the music part but also about the visual part. If you’re going to have this 12 by 12 canvas, and you’re doing it on a small scale where you’re not printing out thousands of them, I feel like it’s a great opportunity to give people little unique pieces of art. It sounds a little pretentious, but I don’t think it’s pretentious. You want it to be special, and people want it to be special. It’s like the reason people buy vinyl. They like the package. That was the thing. Back when vinyl was the main format, for me, it was just exciting to look at the record cover and get a special record cover like from Factory Records. This guy, Peter Saville, would do special things with every record, and you would be just as excited about what the record was going to be like as you were about the music. So it’s just a combination of wanting to make little individual special artwork for people and the fact that I’m a musician too. It’s the perfect storm where people like vinyl again. I can make vinyl. The technology can help me make these visual projects that still require a lot of work, but they are still hand made in a way. That’s what I love about it too. I can use to pen plotter to enhance the process. I’m not really hand drawing everything, but it’s still very labor intensive. I have to program it all. When you look at it, you can see that each one is different. It gives that handmade feel, but there is still some technology in it.
buzz: Your New Day music video is a fun video. Can you talk about the meaning or inspiration behind it?
RV: I have a reputation with my friends and co-workers that I’m a little apocalyptic. I don’t think I’m apocalyptic. I’m just always looking at technology with the pros and cons. It’s this idea of taking what we’re doing now and moving a little further down the line where everyone’s using virtual reality. Those video games that you play that are so stupid and silly. Even the Wii – where people try to exercise by playing tennis but not really – is kind of funny to me. But it’s also a little scary. It’s just stuff I think about. I think about technology and how it’s changing us. The video is just looking into that world. I just got an Oculus rift developer kit, and it’s the scariest thing in the world when you’re playing around with that stuff. I was talking with someone who was working with an Oculus rift, and they were talking about how you get that weird blurry thing you get with video games when you play a game so long and have that weird moment where you don’t know which thing you’re in. “Oh wait, I’m in real life again.” With virtual reality, even though the graphics are so basic still, you get so much weirdness if you work in there too long. There’s that weird blur between the real world and the virtual world that is always in science fiction movies. Now that it is becoming more accessible, I can really see where it’s going to start getting really confusing like: “did I talk to you in this virtual chat room or in person? Did I meet this person face to face?” All those kinds of things are going to be coming really soon. I don’t know. It’s just fun to think about.
buzz: I’ve always been skeptical of the Oculus Rift. It seems like too much emersion for a casual gamer.
RV: And that’s the thing though. You get someone who is like five years old now, they’re going to have like full on 3D goggles. You might be the only one who goes “you know, there’s something wrong with that.” When I play video games, I want it to be on a screen and be able to see my friends sitting on the couch next to me. You’ll be complaining about someone who is younger than you who is sitting with goggles, hanging out playing with their friends all over the planet, and that scares me too how quick this stuff is going. There’s these these generations of kids who are doing the gesture based stuff and the virtual reality based stuff. We’re going to be the old men shaking our canes, even though we’re not that old, saying “I want to play a game on a T.V set” and these kids are going to be saying “what’s a T.V set?”
buzz: What sparked the idea of putting your interest of technology together with your interest in music?
RV: It’s really about trying to find to do everything I like in one big package. Like I said before, even before all this technology stuff, being in a band was just as much about making shirts and videos. I mean I love all that kind of stuff, and it just seemed like music allowed you to do a lot of different things. If you’re a video artist, you could make music for your video projects. Music, for me at least, was a way of exploring all the sides of technology I really loved. With this new thing that I’m doing, Thoughts Detecting Machines, I really want to combine all that stuff together. It’s what I have always been interest in. From day one, a computer to me wasn’t just about programming. I liked to make stuff with it. And it has just gotten easier and easier to make stuff with it. I think it’s the way I’ve always been. It’s just that now the technology is there, so I can merge all these things together without having to buy a huge warehouse of equipment. Now, the only thing you need a warehouse full of equipment for is making records. That’s the only downside, but people are working on that too where you can use a 3D print to make copies of vinyl. It’s still a ways off, but even that might change. The person in their house could be doing everything like the videos, making music, and the actual records. It’s an amazing thing.
buzz: How does all this technology that you’re using with your music work when you play live?
RV: It surprises anyone that it works when it does work. I’ve narrowed it down. Everything goes into my laptop. I sing into my laptop. My guitar goes into my laptop. And it all comes back out. I have foot pedals. Sound goes into the computer. I sample stuff. I hit a button. Start sampling it. It starts looping. Drum machines synchronize with the loops. Then, I turn on and off parts. It’s kind of like juggling. It’s a really complicated juggling act with my feet, guitar, vocals, and computer. It’s great because it’s not just me pressing a button and everything just plays. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen because I get bored. It’s like what I was saying about the excitement of being in a band. You never know what’s going to happen. Well, that actually happens with the live stuff too, where I might hit a button the wrong time, or I play a wrong note. It’s not like I play one wrong note and play it right the second time because sometimes I need to play it right the first time, sample it, and keep it looping the rest of the song. If a play a wrong note, that note haunts me for the rest of the song.
buzz: Is there a song you love performing in particular?
RV: I think the first song I pretty much wrote, “Take Good Care of the Machine.” It was the first time I figured out how to do all this stuff. I learned how to do it alone, get it all together, make all the loops work and make the sampling work. It ties into my relationship with the computer. It’s like I’ve got to make sure I’m doing everything right, that I have everything set up right, and that I’m taking care of it because I’m 100% relying on it. If it does something weird, it’s as if the drummer got up and walked away in the middle of the show. If the computer decides to get up and leave or crash, it’s all over. I think that’s why I like the song, and why I like playing it live. It’s not only the song where I figured out how to do all this stuff, but it’s about what is going on. It’s kind of like the theme of the band. I don’t want to call it a mission statement.
buzz: I know you have a history with the Champaign-Urbana area. What’s it like performing there as oppose to other areas? How is the show or audience different?
RV: Even though I don’t live there anymore, it feels like my home town musically. It’s where I became a musician. When I moved to Champaign, I joined bands and started playing. That’s where I really fell in love with the idea of playing music. It’s where I moved from being a listener to a player. So when I play there, I feel like I’m playing my home town. I get to see people who I’ve known forever. It’s also a little stressful. I’m playing for people who have seen me play before whereas other places, it might be complete strangers, or I might not necessarily know the name of every person in the audience. Sometimes when I play in Champaign, I know everyone in the audience. It’s a little intimidating, but that’s what playing in your hometown is like.
Thoughts Detecting Machines will perform tonight at Mike N Molly’s with special guest Mitchell Kent Dietrich. Show at 6:30 p.m. $7 cover. Ages 19+.