In this series, KMFA Story Seeker Natalie Zeldin explores Austin musicians and groups that are "on the edge" between classical and...something else. This is her third article in the series, for more, see her last article on Kenzie Slattow's beatbox flute.
Justin Sherburn is just as much at home as a classical composer as he is an indie rock musician. He has performed across the globe as a member of many bands. He still plays regularly with Okkervil River. Here, Justin shares his perspectives about his unconventional “classical” training, his compositional philosophy, and his upcoming project.
What was your music education like?
I had piano lessons as a kid, but I got into sports and left music behind. But, in high school, I got into punk rock, and then jazz. So then, I got back to the piano playing jazz. My first gig was playing Monday nights at Sardine’s, an Italian restaurant across from the Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth. Johnny Case played there every single night, and he was an early mentor to me. He was a wonderful piano player. When I came to Austin for college, I was part of a jazz trio. Then, I got a place in the Austin-based band 8 ½ Souvenirs and basically just became a touring musician. Later I joined Glover Tango Orchestra. Until then, I was only reading lead sheets. Glover got me hip to musical notation. I learned from watching him, from watching his charts. Glover wrote out his music and basically that was my school. I would spend a month learning three tunes and the rest of the group would just sightread it down. That's how I learn to read music. Basically, this was my roundabout way of a classical education--just learning about music and then about classical music specifically.
You’re currently in the band Okkervil River. Tell us a bit about that.
It's been a ball. I love every time I get to go out with them. It has opened up a lot of doors for me. I just did this soundtrack to this film with Okkervil River and we recorded with lots of great symphony players. We also get to tour a lot.
How do you like touring?
It's worked out really great for me. I can't think of how many years I've toured. For my first few years with Okkervil River, we were touring nonstop and most of the time on the road. I was lucky because I skipped what most rock bands skip over: I lucked into these great gigs where I had my own hotel room. This afforded me a lot of time to pursue my composition stuff. What you have on the road is time. So, on the road, you have an hour show (1.5 if you're headlining) and a sound check, but the rest of the time is yours. So, I would just have hours and hours where I’d work in the hotel and tourbus. What most people figure out in school, I figured out there. I figured out my style and even how to do demos on the road. I actually prefer to compose on the road because there’s a lot of energy and momentum in a hotel room because you know you only have a few hours to work and your mind is on a buzz anyway from traveling. When you're on the road, you are seeing, eating, and smelling all of these different things—all this is input.
How did you get involved with composition?
I didn't get serious about it until somebody asked me to write music for the The Red Balloon. It was 1.5 hours long, and I wrote it all by hand (that's what I knew from the tango world). That was my start with writing out arrangements. That jumpstarted my compositions. It's really serendipitous that you should ask that now. I've been trying to find my voice as a composer in the last 7 years, and I finally realize what it is--what my sound is. It’s a really cool feeling.
What do you think classical music has to learn from other genres?
The quite obvious thing is that people coming from academia can have a very “ivory castle” approach to music. I've been this guy sitting on stage seeing people sitting in audiences having emotional reactions. I know what performance is. It's antics on stage. But some things are simple music ideas that just grab people. Maybe that's simplistic, but I see it work. There is a positive feedback loop of an invested audience--a feedback loop of quality. I'm learning that my value is because I don't have a legit classical background. As a composer, I'm trying to find what's best for me. Combining all my unique experiences and not rise above my station. That would be my biggest failure, being too pretentious.
Tell us about your latest project.
The next show I’m doing is string trio with pedal steel, piano and field recordings (loops) all music inspired by Central Texas’ Enchanted Rock. I guess I would describe the music as Southwestern Minimalism. I use pre-recorded sounds of the creaky rock at Enchanted Rock that happens when the air cools while the rock is still warm at nights. That sound is the theme. I am interested in the reductions of ideas, and then slowing them down. By this, I mean taking normal ideas that would make a lot of sense and slowing them down to half-tempos so you lose a sense of rhythm and it becomes this slowly evolving harmony. It’s appropriate for a geologic description of this place. I'm quite excited about it.
"Monolith: the Enchanted Rock Suite" will be premiered on Sunday, February 28 at The North Door. You can find out more at Montopolismusic.com
Free previews of this new composition will also be performed on the following two dates:
1. January 21st at 5:30 PM at the Blanton Museum of Art
2. February 6th at 8 PM at Blackerby Recital Hall