It Was Always Here: An Interview With Musician and Sound Designer David R. Molina

Ahead of his new album, we spoke with artist, musician, and sound designer David R. Molina about his personal process and background and theater and sound design.

Molina at Jazz Jamboree by Jan Bebel
Molina at Jazz Jamboree, Warsaw, Poland, Photo by Jan Bebel

I first saw David Molina perform at LCM years ago and had been entranced by his music ever since. Everything about the sound itself, the presentation of his works, the way his sounds tend to occupy the forgotten and nuanced  corners of the room every time I’ve seen him perform is a sort of transcendental experimental in sound and lineage. Through his upbringing, dedication, and research, Molina is conceptually draped in this web of timeless and historical sound and narrative, a sonic archaeology of time, memory, loss, culture, and change. Molina’s careful and articulate approach seems to radiate sounds  embedded with the DNA of multiple histories, both fact and fictional, futuristic and timeless. Molina’s music is an antithesis to a fast-paced, unfocused, sloppy and rushed world that we live in. It’s a pause for contemplation, a space for exploration, and although often times abstract or instrumental, politically poignant and culturally charged; akin to the kinetic power of a lightning bolt conjured from his ancestors radiating  through skin to string to speaker.

If you’re unfamiliar with the vast scope of Molina’s work, we sat him down and asked some  questions about the  totality of his creative endeavors. Like many, Molina has lost all of his work because of the lock down, be sure to pre order his new record “It Was Always Here” on bandcamp, which comes out June 5.

Like many of my peers you have surrounded yourself with music and art. How did you  find  yourself dedicated into a life of music?

 

 I am a composer, multi-instrumentalist, sound artist, sound designer, music producer, studio/live sound engineer, and every now and then an instrument inventor. I have created music and sound design for theater and dance companies, film, radio, and multimedia installations, played or collaborated with bands locally, nationally and internationally, for the past 24 years. Most of my work and collaborations address social justice issues, especially the Latino/a/x and immigrant experience.

Most of the shows {…} involved community members; such as formerly incarcerated men, folks transitioning from homelessness, former sex workers, survivors of domestic violence, and undocumented immigrants. I continue doing this kind of work with various companies including the amazing NAKA Dance Theater. This kind of work keeps me going.

I’ve loved music since I was a little kid, as it was a big part of my family’s household. My dad had a huge record, tape, and 8 track collection that was very diverse. It ranged from traditional Central American and Salvadoran music, such as cumbia, merengue and salsa; to classical and opera music, 50’s and 60’s rock n roll, 70’s funk, disco, and rock. My dad loved messing with the piano, or the organ. So at an early age my brother and I got into playing them too. I don’t know how we fit one of those in our 2 bedroom apartment, which was always shared with other relatives who were immigrating from El Salvador during the civil war. This could be an entire extra family of 4 or 5 members.

I started learning guitar around age 11, when I was into various forms of rock, and metal. My dad sent me to an after school program for guitar classes, to supposedly keep me out of trouble. There I fell in love with classical guitar. I knew from that moment I wanted to do music for the rest of my life, and it has saved my life countless times.

I studied music and some recording at Sonoma State University in the early 90’s. There I discovered international music, Jazz, experimental, free-Jazz, and electronic music. I had some great teachers who opened my ears and mind, including Will Johnson, Laxmi Ganesh Tewari, and the late Marco Eneidi and Mel Graves. DJing at the campus radio station, KSUN, got me deeper into experimental, free-jazz, ambient, electronic music, shoegaze, old school dub, and noise rock music.

Around the mid 90’s I met one of my long time collaborators, theater director Roberto Gutierrez Varea. He was teaching theater at SSU and needed a composer for his senior class play. He didn’t want a student composer. One of my ex’s said  “listen to David’s music you’ll love it”. I gave him a demo tape, and he hired me instantly and the rest was history. Word spread and I started getting hired by local Bay Area theaters as a composer and sound designer. Many of those scores were done with my dear friend the late Chris Webb, a fantastic composer and guitarist.  We never planned to be in theater, but

realized it was a way to get paid and make music. It’s funny because at SSU there was a division between the theater and music departments. The musicians always thought the theater students were pretentious, annoying nerds!

Most of the shows with Roberto involved community members such as formerly incarcerated men, folks transitioning from homelessness, former sex workers, survivors of domestic violence, and undocumented immigrants. I continue doing this kind of work with various companies including the amazing NAKA Dance Theater. This kind of work keeps me going.

Me Tau, Ravenna Italy
Molina in Ravenna, Italy

What were some of the most recent projects you were working on before  the pandemic?

I recently did Octavio Solis “Retablos” at Z Below in SF. It was a staged adaptation of his autobiographical collection of short stories. The book documents pivotal moments in his childhood and teenage years growing up along the El Paso and Mexico border, during the 1960s and 70s.

Prior to this I was on a 5 month east coast/midwest tour with another production written by Octavio called Quixote Nuevo. It is loosely based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but set in modern times along the Texas/Mexico border. It is one of the most beautiful, funniest, and heartbreaking shows I’ve worked on in my life. In our version Quixote is a retired literature professor suffering from Alzheimer’s, who believes he is Quixote. He goes on crazy adventures, just like in the book, but battles border patrol, and liberates immigrants. Throughout his journey, underworld skeleton demons called “Calacas” follow him, in an attempt to get him killed and claim his soul. The show is very dreamy and fantastical.

Quixote Nuevo 2
“Quixote Nuevo” by Octavio Solis, at Huntington Theater

During the tour, I also did music for two other productions. Mojada by Louis Alfaro at the Repertory Theater of St Louis, and Fade by Tanya Saracho at Trinity Rep in Providence, RI. Mojada was an adaptation of the Greek tragedy Medea, but set in the present day, in Los Angeles. Medea and her family are Mexican indigenous immigrants, fleeing violence in their homeland, only to encounter the harsh cruel reality of the USA. Fade, was also set in present day Los Angeles. It takes place in a Hollywood studio lot office, and is about the class division, racism in the workplace, and the stereotypes Latinos can place upon each other. It is about the differences between an upper class Mexican writer, and a Mexican-American janitor from the hood.

On top of it all, I booked solo shows with my experimental project Transient at every tour stop. People think I’m nuts to pack this many shows in, but I have to take advantage of the paid flights and housing the Theaters provide. It’s the best way to tour as a musician. I shared the stage with many wonderful nice musicians at each show, including: Sandy Ewen, Aaron Russell, Going in with Li, Joann McNeil, Negative Spaces, Retribution Body, Claude and Ola, and Dog Adrift. I also made a pit stop in NYC, to record with former Bay Area trumpet player Darren Johnston, and saxophonist Alex Weiss. I plan on releasing the recordings of both in a month or 2.

My dad loved messing with the piano, or the organ. So at an early age my brother and I got into playing them too. I don’t know how we fit one of those in our 2 bedroom apartment, which was always shared with other relatives who were immigrating from El Salvador during the civil war. This could be an entire extra family of 4 or 5 members.

Can you talk a bit about the process of composing for theater and how that differs from composing and arranging for your own work?

Composing for theater is very different from just music making, or playing in bands. It’s a multiple step process involving lots of people in different departments. It is collaboration in the maximum form. It requires a very open mind, ability to receive constructive criticism, detachment of ego, habits, your preconceived notions of what is right or wrong idea. You have to be willing to take risks and not be butt hurt if they don’t work. You have to work on the show as a whole big picture, and not get stuck on your own individual ideas and department.

Virgins-and-Goddesses-1
Work with performance artist Violeta Luna: “Virgins and Goddesses”

Step 1. Read the script many times, analyze it and mark the areas you think music, soundscapes, our sound design could go. Throw away any influences of the music you always listen to, or play, and all cliche obvious choices. I start with a blank slate, and instead think about the emotional, and the mental spiritual state of the whole play. I study the characters and what is ticking inside of them. I break down the scenes and think about what is the core mood in the each. What are they feeling about themselves and the other characters? Colleagues, and audience members say that my scores and sound design are the invisible character of the play. The spiritual and psychological layer of the show.

Step 2. Meet with the director and hear what their vision is. Then share what your ideas might be. We go back and forth with ideas and the meeting can often change our initial ideas of the play.

Step 3: Research! Every story is different. Each one takes place in a different time period, country, state, city, culture, race, religion, socio-economic class, and struggle etc. Therefore each show requires different music. If you don’t do your research you are doing a disservice to the people’s story presented on stage. Many of the the shows I do are about social justice and oppressed people. It’s disrespectful to not dive deep into the history, culture and music for each play. The score will be a billion time better and authentic if one does this. A design will feel half baked, disjointed, and be obviously shitty if you don’t do research.

In my 24 years of doing theater I’ve explored nearly every style of music, including genres I never was exposed to, or would think of playing, such as: bluegrass, Tex Mex, Mayan, south East Asian, Eastern European, Taiko, Native African, Cuban, medieval music. Of course I do it all with my own experimental cinematic twist.

4. Gather your notes from your meeting with the director. Read the script again, and this time think about music moods. What is the over all genre style, or core instruments? Then break down the areas you marked into
music characteristics. Is it Major or Minor, fast or slow, dense or sparse, melodic or abstract and atonal, chordal or percusive, or is it a drone or experimental sound scape? Sometimes doing the opposite musically of what happens in scene makes an interesting mood, or effect.

5. I try to find appropriate music examples from my own catalog to share with the director and cast. If I can’t find something, then I’ll share relevant music from other artists as inspiration.

6. Check out the Preliminary design sketches of the other designers! What the set, costumes, and lighting designers do will greatly influence my music, and vice versa. The best pieces of theater have a cohesive design team that flows. It creates magic if done properly.

7. The non fun stuff: Sound plots, theater blue prints, gear inventory, budgets, and lots of administrative paper work. People who don’t know about theater think all I do for work is grab an instrument , a mic, and noodle around all day. As Composer for theater, you are contracted to do the sound design too. This means a lots of un-artistic duties requiring  math, the science of sound, knowledge of complex sound systems and software, good organizational skills and communication, lots of spreadsheets, calendars, and reading and creating complex blue prints, studying and creating complex speaker plots and audio signal chains. All this is required to install massive sound systems.

On a normal day I’ll get about 5 long email chains that are up to 15 people deep, just for one show! I usually juggle 3 different productions a month. You can imagine the hours spent answering emails.

8. My favorite part: Time to write and record basic Ideas. I used to over think this part in the past. But now, my first gut instinct is often correct.

9. Go to rehearsals and see how the actors and director are interpreting the script. This is a game changer. Because seeing a play is very different from reading it and imagining it in your head

10. After seeing the rehearsals, I dive deeper in the music creation. Adding more instruments and arranging, or coming up with new themes. When it feels right I make rough mixes for the cast and crew.

11. Begin experimenting with music in rehearsals. This is my other favorite part of the process. All the hard work starts coming together and the actors start vibing off the music and sound. The work gets deeper.

12. As it gets closer to tech week, I lose lots of sleep, do final mixes and export every single instrument or sound stem, and then program the file in QLAB for multichannel play back. I always try do surround sound. This can be up to 24 channels of speakers, because I like to envelop the audience in the sound world. At the theater I over see the sound system set up and calibration. Then we begin the painstaking process of setting levels for each sound cue. But it’s also fun to explore the capabilities of a great massive sound system. It’s beyond THX when a theater has a dope system.

13. Tech Week: We all shift to the theater to test and synchronize the lights, music, sound, set, costumes, with the actors. It’s a long week of 12 to 14 hours days, with little sleep. There is always work to be done and ready for the next morning. We usually go from 11am to 11pm, with a production meeting and notes until midnight.

14. Preview week. We test out everything with an audience to see what works or doesn’t. An audience can affect a play big time. Things you thought were funny, or instance in rehearsals, might not jive with the audience. Sometimes the audience will find humor, or  be moved in moments that you didn’t notice in rehearsals. An actor or tech mistake may cause magical moments that may end being part of the show. How audience reacts vocally can affect the pace of a show. Laughter is something actors must be aware of, so they have to make sure to pause before the next line, so that line isn’t lost in the laughter. Deep sighs and vocal reactions for heavy moments can make a scene even more intense.

15, open the show and party hard!

 

Molina’s post rock act Impuritan.

Can you talk a little bit about your composition work for the renowned Two Trains  Running, how that came about and about the piece in general?

Two Trains Running, written by the legendary August Wilson, was directed by my long time friend and collaborator Juliette A. Carrillo. I have worked with her since 1997. She has a magical, spiritual, and dreamy way of directing. She also used to be a dancer, so her staging is very choreographic.

Two Trains Running_C. Stanley Photography
“Two Trains Running” Photo: C. Stanley

We really trust each other, and she allows me to do what I want musically. Two Trains was co-produced by Seattle Rep and the Arena Stage in DC, and was performed in each city. From the Seattle Rep synopsis: “There’s a new president in the White House, and racial tensions are on the rise. No, it’s not 2018, it’s 1969. At a critical moment in the Civil Rights movement Memphis is forced to consider selling his restaurant to the city of Pittsburgh as urban planning eats away at his beloved neighborhood. Featuring a captivating slice-of-life cast of characters, Two Trains Running is celebrated playwright August Wilson’s portrait of a defining moment in American history.” As you can see history repeats itself. The play is also about gentrification, the murders of black leaders, and abandonment of black folks in the inner city.

What was the most surreal moment you’ve ever experienced on stage, be it a live performance of your own or  theater work.

There have been so many trippy moments throughout my stage life. One was performing music for the Soap Stone Theater Company at Grace Cathedral. This company was made of formerly incarcerated men, directed by my other dear friend and longest collaborator Roberto G. Varea. There was this intense moment where one cast member was talking about a loved one who died, and he screamed NOOOOOOOO! His scream echoed, for what seemed like an eternity, in the Cathedrals natural 7 to 8 second reverb decay. The other surreal moment was my first large theater gig at The Mark Taper Forum. This was Octavio Solis’ Lydia, also directed by Juliette, which won a 2009 LA Ovation Award in Music and Sound Design. It was intense is because my old friend and collaborator the late Chris Webb, passed away from cancer in Dec 2008. His last wish was that I finish his music and sound design for Lydia. He was in the middle of it. Both Chris and I worked for many years as a music and sound design duo in the bay area. We built our careers together, and played in bands. Working on Lydia was probably the hardest gig in my life because I had to drop my entire life within 2 weeks, and move to the east coast to complete it. His family lived in NYC. I had to go through all his files, sheet music, and even his journals to figure out what the ideas were for his music.

What was the experience like dropping everything and having to finish his work so quickly? Did you even have time to mourn his passing? how were  you able to  complete it under such trying times?

It was really hard. Chris told me he had cancer a few months before he passed away. We chatted a few times, but it was hard for him to talk due to the Chemo and his degrading health. In our conversations I was gonna be his assistant at the Yale Rep version of Lydia. He thought he had 9 month more to live. He loved the play and was committed to it, despite his health situation. It was our friend and the play’s director Juliette Carillo who told me he passed.

While I was out there, Chris’ family and all his music friends put together a concert celebration of his life. We learned a bunch of his sound track music, and performed it for an attendance of more than 100 people at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. It was beautiful. While I was in NYC I stood alone in his apartment. Completing his work was very emotional and hard, but I got it done in time. Chris’s family also lent me many of his instruments to record the music with. So his spirit was with me guiding me.

Molina at KPFA

What was the most frustrating piece of art you’ve ever created and why?

I love theater when it’s professional and respectful, but I also find it very frustrating when working with people or companies that don’t understand, or respect music or sound design. When I started my career, theater was about 10 to 15 years behind all other collaborative art forms in terms of music, sound, and video art. Things have gotten better, but it is still catching up. Some theater people don’t understand music or sound, and what it takes to make it great. They don’t understand basic music terminology, yet they know the basics of sets, lights and costumes. Some have bad, limited, or outdated taste in music, often listening to old mainstream, or new pop music. Another issue is sound design education programs didn’t get established in most university theater programs until about 15 years ago! Music composition for theater programs have been around even less (I’m not talking about musical theater). Sound departments in theaters often have the smallest crew, budget, and the oldest gear. The hierarchy in theater design is always set first, then lights, costumes, and last sound. This applies to meetings and tech time too. There is no mention of music, which is the problem itself. There is a vast difference between sound and creating music. Long ago I worked at some theaters where there wasn’t even a staff sound person. I had to do everything by myself. There have been times where there is only a 1 or 2 person crew, and they are not qualified to install sound systems, and everything gets fucked up. Many composers, and sound designers will agree they have experienced disrespect, or neglect by a few directors, or theater companies in their career. But things have been changing over the past few years. During the last tour I worked at theaters which had some of the best sound crews, and sound systems I’ve worked with in my entire career. I think theater folks are waking up, and understanding the value of a good score and sound design.

What upcoming projects do you have that  you’re excited about, and or  future plans for your solo work as  Transient?

I just finished mixing a new live recording I did with trumpet player Darren Johnston last year. I plan to release it on Bandcamp soon to help me get some funds through his pandemic. I also plan on releasing as many albums as possible for my soundtracks, Ghosts and Strings, as well as Transient, during this lock down. I have about 25 years of unreleased music on hard drives, DATS, ADATs, and cassettes. I’ll be going backwards through my catalogue as I release them

What was the most intense sound or sonic experience you ever had?

In 2006 I went on tour in Peru. I ended up at an amazing, intense, week long ceremony called the Festival of Virgen del Carmen. It takes place in a deep in the remote small village of Paucartambo, high up in the Andes mountains. It honors the Catholic saint of Carmen, but it’s really an indigenous tradition honoring Mother Earth. It was disguised in Catholicism in the 17th century, to avoid persecution by the Spaniards, just like most old ceremonies in Latin America. I would say the Indigenous presence over powers the Catholic shadow. During the week many different troupes of dancers, and musicians attend from all over the mountain region. They represent all the different native tribes of Peru, with colorful outfits, and insane paper mâché, wire, and wooden masks. Each tribe has there own instrumentation. Some use brass and drums. Others use flutes and drums, or strange portable harps and violins. All instruments and costumes are hand made and rustic. Most of the musicians are not trained, so the music has a raw primal feel.

Adding to the soundscape are constant huge fireworks, which would be illegal in the USA. They create massive beautiful spinning firework sculptures, with no regard for fire safety. They make their own unique fizzing sound. My hair and clothes got burned a couple times by flying embers, and sparks, but it was amazing! The week is loud and surreal, and no one sleeps as the festivities go for 23 hours a day, with one hour of rest around 5 am. You go into a trance with the sound, colors. and lack of sleep. The white event of Burning Man can’t compare to this ceremony, which appropriated and bastardized ancient indigenous traditions. I would hear a troupe’s music coming down one street, and another cross behind me would phase in and out, creating the most experimental soundscape I’ve experienced. My body would rumble with the deep bass drums, and explosions. Most of the language spoken is native Quechua which added to the sound experience. Sometimes I would take a break from the intense cacophony and go up into the hills. From there I heard a swirling soundscape of the action happening below. I made many hours of field recordings, documenting the whole week. I’ve only heard about half of the recordings to this day. I hope to do a surround sound performance with those one day. One day.

Info about the upcoming Transient release “It Was Always Here” at https://davidrmolina.bandcamp.com, which comes out  June  5th and you can PREORDER NOW

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