Features: Gordon Highland
by Jason Kane
from Oxyfication, July 28, 2008 (now offline)
Gordon Highland has done college radio, wedding videos, graphic design, short films, ad copy writing, photography, freelance work as a radio station engineer, commercial scripts, and home recording. He’s directed. He’s been in several bands, most recently the semi-acoustic duo Winebox. Rumor has it he’s been to the moon in a homemade rocket of his own design.
It might be tempting to say Gordon samples the arts as one might sample an hors d’oeuvres tray, but that sort of implies that there is no substance to the experience. On the contrary, he strikes me as more of an Iron Chef of the arts, able to whip up complex and imaginative creations from virtually anything you put in front of him.
Did I mention he’s a writer? His first novel, Major Inversions, follows the travails of Drew Ballard through the city of Edgewater– a B-List backwater version of Hollywood threatening to collapse under the weight of its own ego. A beachfront community rapidly losing what’s left of its beach to hotels and businesses following the money of the nearby studios like remora fish, Edgewater is populated by an abnormal number of hyphenates: actor-bartender. Writer-caterer. And in Drew’s case, security guard-musician. He pays the bills by writing corporate jingles, and by night he plays guitar in a hair-metal tribute band under the stage name Jag.
The story starts off with wicked humor as we meet Drew for the first time, and he recalls his beginnings. Fittingly, these opening chapters hit you like a song you know is going to have a hooky chorus, an ironic chef-d’oeuvre that starts— literally— with a piece of shit, and leads into a nightclub performance that is deliriously perfect in its conception, as tightly choreographed as a synchronized stage kick.
Three is a little of the artist in everything he does; this is true here, as Drew shares a few superficial similarities with Gordon. But perhaps less obvious is that they seem to share a penchant for effortless multi-tasking— a sense of navigating a deep sea of details, and never going under. As the story opens, Drew seems almost in charge of Edgewater: he sees through its illusions, and knows the score. Gordon puts out a similar vibe. Fortunately he was available to shed some light on it.
Major Inversions is among the many projects that can be sampled at Gordon’s website.
Jason Kane: You’ve got a lot of creative interests—music, writing, photography and film among them. Which would you call primary, and why?
Gordon Highland: Music is the most easily accessible, because I can just grab a guitar and shred my cares away on demand. Some days it’s just a physical diversion, others it’s an exercise in mimicry, or actually working towards creating something. I like that it allows me to choose between art and performance with equal satisfaction. I guess it’s like how a novelist might enjoy blogging. I direct and edit videos for a living, so that earns my number-one spot at the expense of some passion. Writing fiction is the newest to me, so it’s the mistress most favored.
JK: You’ve recently completed your first novel, titled Major Inversions. The inspiration for the main character came largely from your college days, when you worked as a security guard and moonlit as a musician in a number of bands. Can you tell us a bit about the story and its characters? How close to home is your main character?
GH: Thanks for the plug. He’s sixty-ish percent me. I saw him as sort of an id: the Tyler Durden to my Rupert/Cornelius/Jack. That story about the briefcase full of dildos and rubbers for the kids in juvie is true. As is the one about swapping a cup of piss for a case of beer. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Major Inversions is basically about a day-job security guard in a hair-metal tribute band by night – with all the trappings of deluded fame and its fiends on the fringe – trying to make a life change when he meets “the girl,” and failing at every turn, including a disastrous attempt at seeking out his birth parents. Everything takes place in this fictionalized east-coast Hollywood with its requisite cast of plastic characters, and all under the watchful eye of his parasitic new roommate always lurking in the periphery.
While the plot itself is total fiction, I drew from personal experience to sort of paint the backgrounds and dress the sets, so to speak. Those little details and day players that create a realistic atmosphere for the absurd happenings. In a strange twist of coincidence, a few months after I started writing I joined an 80s tribute band. Pop, though, not metal. By that point I’d already outlined most the band subplots, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some additional influence. (laughs)
JK: Sometimes it’s difficult to work in one aspect of a medium while having your passions lie at the other end of the spectrum. In some ways it might seem paradoxically easier to make a novelist out of a bricklayer than a novelist from someone who’s had experience in advertising. With your professional experience in ad copy and commercial scripts, do you find any difficulty in using the same tools in so many different ways? What kind of relationship do the habits and skills honed in your professional experience have with the creation of your novel?
GH: It’s true that I’m usually most excited about the opposite of whatever I’m being paid to do any given month. Much as I loathed copywriting at the time, it was a fantastic prep school. When you’re tasked with something like a company slogan, every effing word has so much weight, you’ve really gotta master economy and concision of language. You befriend your thesaurus in a quest for the perfect word. Ad copy is also loaded with authority. Sometimes you gotta establish it first, and then certainly work to maintain it throughout the piece. Those old habits can’t help but pervade my writing today, and are responsible for what I’m told is a confident tone. I’m one of those edit-as-I-go writers with the inner critic always on his shoulder, so one finished page is a really good evening for me.
Screenwriting is extremely limiting as a form of expression, and it’s the main reason I wanted to attempt a novel. Permission to describe in senses other than sight or sound, pile on the adjectives, inner monologues, point-of-view shifts – all those forbidden devices that handicap screenwriters. Though, in fairness, writing for the screen will improve your visual arsenal and help you be more verby and active-voiced. That whole “externalizing the internal” thing.
I’ll tell ya, directing actors has also been a phantom influence. Their endless questions will force you to consider subtext and what each character wants from another in a scene, because it’s all they have to latch on to. (laughs) Body language, reactions, some physical business to occupy them so they aren’t just a talking head. All stuff that should be on the page if you want multi-dimensional characters and heightened conflict.
JK: Now that your novel’s finished, you’ve been pursuing publication. Is this your first experience in doing so? What are your thoughts on the process so far?
GH: My original intent was just to be able say I’d written a book – you know, check it off some list or something. But I became quite serious about it very quickly, and the book gets noticeably better as it goes along. Not just as the plot gains momentum, I mean literally its craft, to mirror the progression of my narrator’s own writing abilities. How convenient, right? That’s a risky device for a first-time scribe like myself, because all people want to read are the first ten pages, which are by design nowhere near the strongest. Predictably, lit agent interest has been nonexistent, so now I’m targeting smaller publishers. I really don’t want to self-publish because that external validation is important to me. We’ll see.
JK: You’re into writing and performing music as well, and have taken the DIY approach to a lot of your recordings—playing the instruments yourself, and being solely responsible for the production. Obviously this allows a great deal of freedom, but can also be restricting. Are you ever forced to “dumb down” the song in your head due to the difficulty of being responsible for all sections, or has practice led you to a fairly comfortable method of assembly?
GH: I’ve never written anything I couldn’t execute musically, but I don’t compose in my head, either, only by getting the actual notes underneath my fingers. Writing and recording are parallel processes for me. The original seed for a new song is more enigmatic, but I think so-called “creativity” is largely something that’s enabled. By that I mean, in addition to raising the antenna, you gotta have the chops and the tools to express and capture your vision when it comes. So yeah, as a one-man studio, my songs definitely suffer from my own engineering. For example, creating a drum track is a tedious catch-22, because you want to lay the foundation down first, but can’t until you know the entire song’s arrangement, so there’s this maddening back and forth that happens with temp guide tracks and metronomes while putting the puzzle together. My brain hurts just thinking about it … (laughs) Once the drums are down, though, it’s just a matter of adding furnishings and coats of paint, and that’s how I build a song: one instrument at a time, with no grand conceptual vision beyond how the melody and chords relate to the lyric.
JK: It’s easier for people to take it for granted that song lyrics are autobiographical; for whatever reason this seems a natural assumption, perhaps because there is the implication that songwriting is supposed to be a more direct expression of the self, whereas fiction is more likely to be looked at as a construct. How would you characterize the differences between lyric writing and written fiction? Do you approach them differently?
GH: That’s interesting; never thought of them that way. Lyrically, I’m not really from that Dylan/Springsteen storyteller tradition, I’m more of the Leonard Cohen/Roger Waters school where everything’s wrapped in metaphor and iconography and intended for you to project your own meaning onto it. I feel like I haven’t done my job when a phrase is too direct. Also, I rarely write lyrics in my own voice. The concept can’t help but be based on something I felt, but it’s then dramatized and filtered through someone else’s viewpoint. Which is especially interesting now in my duo with a woman singing them. (laughs) Yeah, I do take a very similar approach to fiction as lyrics, with the ubiquitous metaphors and painstaking wordsmithing, anyway. That’s why Major Inversions took so long to finish; it was like writing thirty-four songs! (laughs) Of course all the jingles sprinkled throughout the book are a more obvious connection here.
JK: You’ve mentioned your self-produced CD, Music Inside, as being simultaneously a source of pride and a stylistic hodgepodge; can you explain both your dissatisfaction and why it remains a source of pride? Does this push and pull of attitudes occur in your other work as well?
GH: I’ve done a lot of home recording, before and since, but that one was just me trying too hard to prove something, making an “album” by myself despite the compromises of such pride. I had too many styles of music on there, excelling at little but the guitar playing and drums. One tune even managed to morph from country into funk. (laughs) But at the same time, mixing down that last song, designing the artwork – it made it real. Instead of just eleven songs, I had a CD, a complete work. Never mind that they belonged on eleven separate albums. (laughs) Since then I’ve learned to compartmentalize things more effectively, to be more cohesive. For some, having created something is more important than it being good, and these days I’d rather be known for the latter.
JK: A lot of the songs you’ve written on your own are now being sung by Shannon Lipps in your semi-acoustic duo Winebox. What’s the process— do you record a demo version for her to listen to with intact vocals, or do you discover the melodies together? How close is the finished song to the one in your head?
GH: Chords or riffs always arrive first. Whenever something beams down my antenna and prickles up the arm hairs, I jack the guitar or piano into the Mac and get a quick scratch recording before it vanishes back into the ether. Usually a chorus and verse, maybe 45 seconds. Most songs end there, stillborn into an MP3 purgatory. If it has Winebox potential, I’ll loop it as I scat or hum over it, workshopping a melody. Eventually I’ll remember Shannon’s not a tenor, and start over. (laughs) Rather than ruin it with my crude throat, I’ll use a voice-y tone on the synth to record the melody over the chords, making sure I’ve accounted for all the syllables in the lyrics so it’s obvious what’s what. Then I just sync my idea folder up to her iPod so she can live with them awhile. But we have telepathic tastes, so it’s pretty obvious at first listen which ones will get developed into actual songs. She’ll “blue them up” – inject more soul and nuance once she interprets and takes ownership of the vocal for herself. Then we’ll work together to fine-tune the melody or a lyric here or there – change all the hers to hims and whatnot.
JK: Music has a different birth than written media; an entire take can be ruined by one false note. How do you approach the actual act of recording—is there ever a “magic” take, or are there always concessions? Are you overly concerned with the intricacies of the recording (knob-twisting), or is the essence of the song more important?
GH: Unfortunately, the jigsaw approach I talked about earlier doesn’t create the ideal atmosphere for transcendent recorded takes. I focus on the strength of the tune itself and hope its magic will be revealed when performed live. Sometimes I get lucky, though, and the gods will smile upon a heavenly pinch harmonic or some bass frequency that twists up in your gut just right. I do use a wireless controller, and that helps reduce the number of times I have to scoot across the room between takes. One thing I don’t do is quantize. That’s where you put the programmed notes up on a grid and snap them to their precise beat divisions. Percussion is all I program anyway, but I prefer it flawed and natural-sounding. Actually, that’s not true. If I have a horn section or some orchestral addition, I’ll usually program those, because after the vocals are recorded I sometimes want a different harmony, and it’s easy to use the grid to change or nudge a note before you commit to recording it. So yes, I’m an obsessive knob-twister, but just to squeeze the most from my limitations. And I’ve definitely embraced a more organic, simplified process in recent years.
JK: It costs money for the equipment to produce music, while you could essentially write a book for free. What advice might you offer to someone wanting to get into home recording? How important is the gear? Any hard lessons you’d like to help them avoid?
GH: Yes, stringing a bunch of loops together is not “composing music.” Even if you did run a filter sweep on it. Just wanted to get that out there. (laughs) The internets are saturated with self-appointed filmmakers and musicians today because software is so affordable and user-friendly. But humans write songs, and the good ones thrive despite the technology used to create them. My best advice is to get comfortable with your instrument(s) before giving in to the temptation to dabble in recording.
Also, the song itself is king. Not how clean it sounds, or how well the waveforms line up, or even how catchy it is, but how effectively you transferred the emotion you felt when writing it to the person who hears it. Once you have songs worth preserving, invest in a system that’s modular with the flexibility to grow as your budget grows. And a really good mic preamp.
JK: Moving on to film, what’s the process by which you approach visual media? What appeals to you about photography and film that other media lacks?
GH: Well, until something more immersive comes along, a virtual reality or some kind of shared biological experience, film is the highest art form there is. Just the way we can combine and manipulate multiple senses, time, spatial relationships, and perspective in a way that no other medium allows. But it’s also by necessity collaborative if you want to work at a high level, and control can be a difficult thing to relinquish. Your vision gets diluted – or enhanced – by everything from actor interpretation to the set design to the music. Not to mention the environment it’s exhibited in. Whereas with a book, words go from the sender’s brain to a page and into the receiver’s brain.
My general approach is just to take advantage of what’s available and hopefully show the ordinary from a new perspective. Having the sound betray the visuals, regulating the mood with music – flip the script, ya know? There’s a psychology to the camera: the direction it moves, how the shot’s framed to imply certain relationships, heighten tension, conceal or reveal – stuff like that. You’ve got the length of the lens, how high it is, filtration. Even in post-production you can keep changing perception of the story with color tints, editing tempo, animation, or whatever. I love having such a giant palette of techniques to work with.
JK: Tell us about Featurette: The Making of Redlight. What is it? Where’d it come from? Who all was involved?
GH: Featurette is a short film I made a few years ago that played at some festivals. At that time, it was sort of the culmination of everything I knew how to do professionally – like a calling card – given how tenuous job security’s always been. I wrote, directed, shot, edited, composed … basically everything but hold the mic boom. (laughs) I’m even in the damn thing. Charlie Phillips, Victoria Prater, and Pat Redd act the main roles, and Charles Stonewall was on set through most of it helping with lighting and production.
I’m a big fan of metafiction, especially Charlie Kaufman’s scripts, and I’d just seen the latest season of Project Greenlight, so Featurette’s concept was somewhere between the two: it’s the documentary that would go on the DVD about the making of a film by some hack contest winner. Except there is no actual film; you pop in the disc and the special features are your only option. Everything is inverted. Any excerpts from the “film” are this uber-shitty, overexposed black-and-white video, while all of its behind-the-scenes footage is well-lit color widescreen stuff on dollies and whatnot. Much more filmic. It made me laugh, anyway. There’s still a mini-site up for it at my site if anyone’s interested.
My friends have been up my ass a long time now about making another short, but the last thing I want to see when I get home at night is a camera, ya know?
JK: Having so many creative outlets, I am picturing a chaotic playground of a workspace: how do you separate your interests and choose a focus? Does the environment for writing a story differ from the environment for writing a song?
GH: Yeah, I write stories in the kitchen and songs in the shitter. (laughs) I’m half-kidding. Inspiration usually strikes wherever is furthest from my workstation. Mentally, I mean. I have guitars and notebooks strategically planted in all rooms of my home, including an electric piano at my day job. Most fiction I write at an empty dining-room table on a laptop facing my bookshelves. Guess I figure if I get stuck, some form of literary osmosis will leak from their spines onto my keypad. (laughs) Lyrics tend to get penned into a Moleskine notebook on the couch, using about three times the necessary ink. Same goes for acoustic guitar parts, faux-scoring some muted film on IFC with a blank pad of sheet music within arm’s reach. Eventually everything gets centralized on the Mac in my recording studio with of those Time Capsule wifi drives. A Cinema Display is a wonder of widgetary distraction, so I’ve recently adopted a full-screen blackout feature to try to maintain focus on the doc at hand if writing in there.
JK: Who or what inspires you? Do images inspire you to take pictures? Does music inspire you to write a song? Or is it more complex than that?
GH: Most of my musician friends experience this same phenomenon: We’ll be driving back from a concert, and cannot wait to get home and make some music of our own. Every time, whether it’s because the artist elevated the bar I aspire to, or because they were such magnificent hacks I’m encouraged I could do better. Such a short path from inspiration to motivation sometimes. But not always the other way around. (laughs) I’m sure I often confuse jealousy for inspiration. Most often it’s a film, sometimes a gorgeous melody. A few sure-fire sources off the top of my head: Michel Gondry’s music videos, Leonard Cohen’s words, Beethoven’s notes, the airport, and PostSecret.com.
JK: The airport?
GH: Yeah, it’s a peoplewatcher’s paradise. One of my other security guard jobs. I’d bust ass to get a few flights out, then have some down time. Sitting there in the terminal eating my sad little ham sandwich and making up backstories for everyone. It’s a virtual cross-section of society and human emotion. You’ve got couples parting ways, being reunited, fugitives, minors flying alone. Celebrities, strippers, businesspeople, military, rich, poor – all on the move for whatever reason I’d assigned them. Hell, my mother’s been an airport bartender for twenty years, think she’s got some stories? And my dad does police records . . . so between the two you’d think there’d be a few Elmore Leonard caper novels to be mined. (laughs)
JK: You also mention Beethoven. What is it that you think makes classical works so eternal? What is the role of a masterpiece in moving modern art and culture forward– or, to the contrary, is art and culture forever in the shadow of those untouchable works? When you look at the recent landscape of art, is there anything else you feel has the potential to be treasured for centuries to come, or is that something only time will tell?
GH: Wow. I never formally studied art, so I’m flying without gauges here, but I think what at least contributes to timelessness is simplicity and the use of universal metaphor, like I was saying earlier about lyrics. I’m sold on that monomyth model and its classic archetypes with the heroes and princesses and mentors and the temptations and atonements and all that. The tale of Jesus follows it precisely – or vice-versa – and that one’s still selling pretty well, as did The Matrix. Even something like The Breakfast Club, firmly rooted in 80s culture, will endure because society is forever stratified and everyone feels like an outsider sometimes. One reason The Dark Side of the Moon is still relevant after thirty-five years is because the causes of madness in our lives never change: power structures, the quest for money, aging, violence – and on another album, using metaphors like dogs, pigs, and sheep for social castes was brilliant as well. Instrumental music can have a longer shelf life because the lack of words allows the listener to project his own story onto the wall. And classical in particular doesn’t suffer much from passing trends, its instruments don’t require electricity, and it has a lot of contrast: piercing highs and bong-rattling lows – those degrees of “light and shade” that Jimmy Page also brought to Zeppelin – the same conflict that drives good art.
More recently, music like Coheed & Cambria, The Arcade Fire, and Joanna Newsom show this kind of potential. Coldplay’s anthemic nature will probably secure their place in the classic rock canon. Books like McCarthy’s The Road are destined to be relevant for years because it’s just a father/son relationship in a cruel world. House of Leaves is a modern masterpiece. Its analysis and fervor may wane over time, but it’s just so rich for exploration, something The Raw Shark Texts attempted as well, and I imagine such multi-media experiences will play a key role in keeping written fiction alive in the coming years.
JK: What’s your ultimate goal? Is there an overarching need you feel in creating that is being fulfilled in all your projects, or does one rise up as somehow holier than the rest? In other words, could any one alone sustain you?
GH: My goal used to be to see something I wrote or directed up on the big screen. Then a short film of mine had some festival screenings, so technically that was achieved. It was no masterpiece, but I wore so many hats on that project it was like the culmination of everything I’d honed up to that point, from writing to directing, cinematography, editing, composing, on and on. But I guess it also means I should be more specific about such dreams before I rub the lamp again. (laughs) That’s still the goal, revised: a feature film with a theatrical release.
JK: What projects are next on the list?
GH: I’m still in songwriting mode at the moment, building the Winebox catalog. Drafting a few short stories. Someone recently asked why I don’t focus on short stories to get some publishing credits under my belt. It occurred to me that I’d never written any because lyrics always provided that outlet with about the same level of effort. Of course if there’s interest in Major Inversions, I’d love to write another novel. Otherwise I’m probably looking at another short film this summer or fall.
Thanks for the space here at Oxyfication, Jason. Great questions!