Basic Printer features driving synth runs, whimsical hooks, and quirky samples - a sound that is anything but basic. Based in Nashville, Basic Printer was created by Jesse Gillenwalters in what began as an experiment. With time, trial and error, and the huge influence of the Nashville music community, Jesse has grown and evolved in his approach as a songwriter, performer and business owner. Erin Westfall chatted with Jesse about synthesizers, authenticity and social media.
THE BIRTH OF BASIC PRINTER
In high school, I recorded music with a friend that had a studio in his basement. In that process I learned the basics of gear and the recording process. I reached a point of frustration, not with the friendship, but in the sense that I could be unrestrained if I could just do everything myself. I quickly got my own basic stuff together.
I was living in Binghamton, New York, which is a lesser known city. There weren’t a lot of musicians there to use as reference points or examples, so the music I would make had no quality control. Whatever I said goes.
Most of the time I've had the name Basic Printer I've not liked it. Around 2008, I was uploading my music to FM and I needed an artist name. My friend and I went back and forth exchanging ideas before settling on Basic Printer. It was meant to be a place-holder, and I thought I would change it later.
Now, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the name in a way, almost from a third party perspective. I think a printer is sort of emblematic of the analog-digital fusion sound that I’ve created, as well as the aspect of me outputting thoughts in a clear and vulnerable way.
AN ENVIRONMENTAL EVOLUTION
Once I moved to Nashville, it was overwhelming because everyone I knew played and was really amazing and every band and recording was perfect. I was able to take the raw instinct I had and polish it with the help of my new environment.
I had a couple friends over one time and we decided to play songs we haven’t yet released. They both performed a song on acoustic guitar which wasn’t yet recorded, but in their minds they had fully culminated. Both were amazing. But when it came to my turn I didn't have a heart wrenching song in my pocket, so I played them a demo on my stereo. I would like to have songs that I could pull out in a moment like that. I'm interested in making sure there's more of that thought out emotional result before recording.
THE SYNTH SOUND THAT STARTED IT ALL
My all time favorite musician is Tobacco. That was the dawning moment for me, that singular band. He (Thomas Fec) has two projects, Black Moth Super Rainbow and Tobacco, which is a little bit more aggressive. His music is what made me want to use synthesizers.
My go-to synth is the Roland JUNO-106. It's a classic 1984 vintage keyboard that really holds up in that the features can be used in a modern way. You can save patches or sounds, which is not always the case, as well as midi, which you can control with your computer. So it's able to exist with newer stuff pretty easily. I don't think I can say this with 100 percent certainty, but I don't think I've used a software synth on any of my recordings. Some people think it's a goofy roundabout way of doing it, but I think it's like the funnest thing.
Erin: I’ve noticed you play a bunch of different instruments. Does it feel like synth is home base for you?
Jesse: Yes! But not as an instrumentalist, but more like tone-wise. I am really not a great keyboardist by my standards, but typically my first thought is to start with a synth sound. If you're not 100 percent sold on it, use another song to try to reach that point. Like don't slave over this one song to try to reach this arbitrary standard. I like to find a tone base to inspire the song and melody.
E: Your approach to songwriting is a lot more organic and less theoretical. It seems like you are really locked into getting a sound a certain way.
J: It's been pretty weird. I wrote 100 songs that way before I started learning how to write a song so to speak. Only lately has it been like ‘Alright, what are the chords? What is the melody in conjunction?’ Some of that stuff has been happening naturally, but I've only recently taken a more classical writing approach. I'm making sure the song has an effect, meaning and through lines. I'm usually not interested in that, but it's been a little more there.
THE SECRET BEHIND THE SAMPLES
Many of my samples are just obscure little bits and bots from Super Mario. I was a huge gamer when I was a kid. I'm really not as much anymore, but in my mind is a reservoir of countless sound effects from various stages of playing.
Whenever I want a sample of some kind I will know the exact quality of that sound that I’m going for, and I can get it without having to search or guess. Like, for example, I’ve used the sound that occurs when Mario steps on wood. I would say most of the samples you hear are from a video game of some kind.
However, in particular, the car door sound on “Smoke and Scowl” was a deliberately recorded sound byte from my actual car. That whole album is conceptual and we were capturing some of the environmental stuff to show what the character is doing.
AUTHENTICITY IN MUSIC
I believe that simply existing digitally, by putting out a song or video, you're one step removed from the real person. Even if that video or that song is very vulnerable, it's one step away. It’s a little bit edited or branded. As vulnerable as I try to be on the internet, someone can still take it a certain way or see it with this shrink wrap on it, you know? And that's just gonna be what it is.
My whole thing with authenticity, and I'll say this all the time, is if someone came up to me and complimented my art I would be overflowing with gratitude and amazement. And I feel like that every time someone comments. It never gets old. And I want to reward that every time for everybody until I simply can't anymore. Until I outgrow it, you know? And I don't think that musicians can afford to not be that way.
For example, a fan and I started talking last night through voice memos on Instagram because we had a mutual interest in the band Incubus. Of course I'm gonna entertain that and get to know this person, which is fun. But if you were to be super ‘markety’ about it I'm also learning something about my fans that could feedback into other things. It's so easy to be too cool on the internet. I think it's way harder to go out of your way to try to crack through and have a real connection with as many of these people who are like going out of their way to say ‘I like you.’
HOW TO CONNECT WITH YOUR FANBASE
E: What advice do you have for artists trying to connect with their fans?
J: I would reward every emanation of someone who likes your thing whether it be a DM or a comment. You can't be a robot about it either. Ideally you're the type of person who thinks ‘I wanna reward you for enjoying my stuff cause that's a miracle!’ Like, how did I get you here? It's so hard to do that. Gratitude is the main thing.
There is a tenure aspect and an iterative aspect. It's not like with every post you're born anew. If you are creating an audience on vulnerability, then when you're vulnerable you're rewarded. You've built this house on that. So if you build it on gratitude and vulnerability, I think it is more inviting, interesting and dynamic.
I recently posted that I was quite sad because I had just broken up with my girlfriend at the time. I knew that I could say this to my fans and that we could talk about it. I wasn't looking for this but my post blew up. I set up this environment where my people are truly my people, they are my friends and my world. I can pop in and say I'm sad and would love just to feel good. And they're like I would love to do that for you.
EMAIL LISTS AND WAX SEALS
I think email is really important and should be to every artist. I build my email list in two ways - through digital content collections supporting my main albums (they gain access once they sign up) and through ads that offer a free CD promotion.
My email marketing strategy is to treat every email like a very personal note to a friend, in a wax sealed envelope. You get the realest me on email and I reply to everyone that emails me back. It's just a place to be real and comfortable with my fans, away from the noises and lights of the social media feeds.
I mostly get people to my website through my email sends! That's the main way anyone gets over there aside from getting curious and finding it on their own.
THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC
E: Are you a full time musician currently?
J: I work full time in music, but I'm not full time Basic Printer. I work for Indepreneur, a company that coaches independent musicians to be successful in their marketing. And that is a dream job, without a doubt. Everything I think about and do at that job I would have to do and be doing anyway. I learn a lot there and I'm able to recycle that to help people too.
E: That's rad. I bet it’s rewarding to work with musicians and help them. Out of all the things you're doing, what is generating the most income for you?
J: If i'm being loose about this, 95% physical merch.
E: Wow, that’s huge. I know you’ve produced vinyl with us at Atomic Disc. I loved the translucent color you went with!
J: The vinyl came out perfect! It was my first order with Atomic Disc. I've had this moment so many times before where you open up the merch that you ordered and there's a typo or the colors will be off or just one detail missing but this time every little thing was perfect!
E: What are your thoughts on companies trying to do more for creators, like Bandcamp and Patreon?
J: I would say Bandcamp and Patreon are pretty similar. Bandcamp seems darling and beloved and I’m sure their intentions are there, but there’s a lot of issues because they truly don’t know better. I have my music on Bandcamp, but I treat it like any other streaming service.
The problem is that when you use these services you are sending traffic to their website and not your own. You can’t edit their interface or plug in the activity to your email. You’re giving away your data, branding, and user experience. Plus they take 10% of your merch and 15% of your digital sales. You can’t escape this kind of thing though.
As I said, if you exist online it only adds a layer furthering the distance from you to your fans. It's tricky because philosophically and emotionally Bandcamp resonates with me. All of this applies to Patreon as well. As an alternative, I’ve created Printerville, which is basically a membership for fans. Members receive access to songs as I write them and thoughts as I have them. It’s the most vulnerable place for my fans to join me, because I post songs, demos in progress, pictures, and behind-the-scenes projects. Members can basically hear my next record as I’m making it.
E: That's really cool. I don't think many artists would show that side of the process. What are your musical goals for the future?
J: To do exactly what I'm doing, just at least slightly bigger. I'm living the dream right now. If I can just do it a little bit more and a little bit bigger that's all I could ask for.
Thank you for this delightful interview! I had a blast and LOVE Atomic Disc!