Sound On: How Music Moves Us

How does music impact our human experience? We speak with Rob Flax, a musician who is known for improvisation in performance. Plus, he made all of the music for our show! Rob has been studying music from a young age, and has experience in the music education sphere. He’s also a touring musician making music his full-time job. We’re looking at music on a personal level from Rob’s experiences, but also how music impacts all of us on a societal and global scale.

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Experience This Podcast is created and produced by Action! by Design. Action! by Design is a citizen-centered design company that helps people build better products, launch impactful campaigns, and elevate their brand.

The show is hosted by Joshua Croke and produced by Mariel Cariker.


Episode Transcript

ROB FLAX: He said, “What was it that you do?” I said, “I’m a musician.” And he said, “Oh, music eh? Music is like a knife.” I said, “Excuse me?” “Yeah, music is like a knife.”

JOSHUA CROKE: Music plays a large role in many of our lives. We all have those songs we go to when we are happy, sad, are getting ready to go out with friends, going through a break up, etc. Music enhances experiences. To end our first season, we wanted to highlight the creator who composed the soundtrack for our show.

This is Experience This Podcast, I’m Joshua Croke.

ROB FLAX: Are we doing the thing? We are doing the thing. It is sending sound.

JOSHUA CROKE: I first met Rob Flax at a Sofar Sounds performance that I helped organize in my home city of Worcester, Massachusetts. His energy and the way he engaged the audience was exactly the type of experience I appreciate at live shows. After a few songs, he asked us to shout out five random notes — he then took those notes and improvised an entire song looping instruments, as well as making up lyrics, right there in front of us. When we were planning the first season of the podcast, he jumped into my mind instantly as the person to connect with to create the soundtrack for our show. With our focus on creating experiences, we thought, ‘How cool would it be to have our show music recorded in a live improv session?’

ROB FLAX: The first song I remember writing was in fifth grade — this was with my friend Greg Brosick — we wrote a song called “Makin Jamaican Bacon” — it was terrible. But it was this little catchy jingle thing that kinda got stuck in your head for awhile. Music has always been something I loved and it’s always been something that’s been fun and joyous, and it only became a serious consideration for my job as I whittled away the other options.

JOSHUA CROKE: Rob attended Dennison University in Ohio for undergrad. He didn’t start out as a music major, but eventually became one “by accident.”  Music lessons were free if you were a music minor, so he picked up the minor to take more classes. Rob then decided to get a masters degree in music. During his junior year of college in 2009, Rob submitted to a contest from the American String Teacher’s Association called the Alternative Styles Awards — and he won $1,000. Most of that money ended up going toward traveling to Atlanta to attend the American String Teacher’s Association Conference that year.

ROB FLAX: Didn’t end up netting a lot there but it was enough to be like, ‘wow, I just made a bunch of money because of my music and that was the first moment where it really clicked. And so ever since I’ve been pursuing it full-time in some fashion.

JOSHUA CROKE: So how many instruments does Rob play?

ROB FLAX: Gosh… I lost count. 30ish? Somewhere? Depends how you define an instrument. Off the top of my head, most of the string instruments: Violin, viola, cello.

*Sound of a violin*

ROB FLAX: Upright bass, electric bass, acoustic and electric guitar.

*Sound of a guitar*

ROB FLAX: Mandolin, mandola, which is like a viola mandolin hybrid-baby.

*Sound of a mandolin*

ROB FLAX: Percussion

*Sound of drums*

ROB FLAX: Piano and keys

*Sound of piano*

ROB FLAX: And synthesizers, and a little bit of trumpet, and a little bit of tubla, I count that one as separate.

JOSHUA CROKE: Just in our recording process over one day, Rob used five instruments, and a ton of tech elements to make these instruments sound like other instruments, and to add unique spins to each track to give us a lot of music to work with for each episode.

ROB FLAX: Usually my creative process is based around temporary obsession. So I get obsessed with something and then just dive way deep into it. Right now, my whole universe is guitar effects pedals. So I’ve just been geeking about delays and reverbs and overdrives and fuzzes and octoverbs and synth pedals and all these different little boxes that are sort of instruments of their own. I started playing with them as a way to manipulate the sound of a violin, to turn it into something it wasn’t. I wanted to sound like a rock guitar on the violin.

*Sound of a violin that sounds like a guitar*

ROB FLAX: Or like a synthesizer.

*Sound of Rob using violin to make synth sounds*

ROB FLAX: Just ‘cause that’s the instrument I knew how to play the best and I wanted access to those types of sounds.

JOSHUA CROKE: Using his violin to replicate these sounds led Rob to actually learn to play the guitar and experiment further with synths.

ROB FLAX: The inspiration for a song of my own could come out of anywhere but it’s in the middle of a process of learning. I’m very committed to learning and growing for my own benefits, just even if nothing comes out of it, I just am always learning something.

JOSHUA CROKE: It’s amazing how many sounds you can create with just a smartphone or a tablet. Rob uses a lot of different technology to create different, exciting sounds. On the day we recorded, the iPad that Rob usually records with was having trouble keeping a charge, but it inspired Rob to tell us about his experiences recording with just a cell phone.

ROB FLAX: I used to tour with the cell phone as the main rig, but…

JOSHUA CROKE: Really?

ROB FLAX: It was unreliable ‘cause it is a cell phone. So it was nice to have a dedicated instrument that just does this. Okay, there we go, we’re at nine percent.

JOSHUA CROKE: Rob says recording with his iPhone and iPad makes the outcome sound like high quality instruments.

ROB FLAX: I’m in my apartment, and I have access to recording technology that 30 or 40 years ago you’d need $100,000 at least to be able to have this kind of a studio process. I can do it all on my laptop. And it’s an old laptop, like I’m looking at it like, ‘man, I really need to upgrade.’ But it’s still better than the best stuff that some of my heroes from the 50s and 60s had access to, so it’s pretty amazing just what I can do as an independent musician.

JOSHUA CROKE: The diversity and amount of technology available to solo musicians like Rob makes it much easier, and more accessible, for him to tour and perform live.

ROB FLAX: I use a looper pedal as my main means of performing solo live. And that means I can record myself in real time and then play over the top of that. And that has opened up tons of doors because that means I can tour as a one man band and don’t have to worry about scheduling band rehearsals, so that’s a big deal.

*Sound of Rob looping the theme song during our recording session*

JOSHUA CROKE: Despite all the exciting technology now at his fingertips, sometimes Rob just likes to go back to basics.

ROB FLAX: The violin is 300 years old and basically hasn’t changed. Sometimes technology is really good thing because it opens up new possibilities. Other times, we already have more than enough. So I have to try to remember to keep a balance between the latest obsession and the coolest toy, and the coolest gadget, but also I could go in the woods and play my violin right now, so that keeps me humble and keeps me honest.

JOSHUA CROKE: So what’s it like being an independent musician in the digital age?

ROB FLAX: The cross-pollination that’s happened because of the internet is ridiculous. So many people have heard so many different styles that you get all kinds of stuff mixed together that never used to be. Part of it too is there’s no gatekeepers anymore. I can release something today and put it up on the web and anybody has access to it. There’s no longer the waiting, the permission of ‘Oh, I have to get a record label to sign off and say it’s cool and then promote it and get it on the radio,’ and all of the normal barriers to getting to people to listen to it. Now I can just post something, share it, and instantly people hear it.

That also means there’s a lot more people in the swimming pool.

JOSHUA CROKE: When he first started his career out of school, Rob would play for dance classes at the Boston Conservatory in the mornings, and then go to various schools where he would teach elementary school students to play the violin. He says trying to play in classes, teach and write his own music became overwhelming, and he knew he had to release his own music at some point.

During this time, Rob worked at a summer dance festival, and he planned to play a song at an annual concert where the accompaniests could step into the spotlight to play original music. Rob finished writing the lyrics to the song he was planning to play backstage. He tried it out, and he got a standing ovation.

ROB FLAX: People loved it so much that I realized, ‘Okay, I’ve written something that I think is special here. It resonates with people in a deep way. I need to go out on the road and share this music. The music has spoken. I have to go do this. I have to go share it.’

JOSHUA CROKE: Rob quit teaching in 2017 to tour full-time. Teaching used to limit his touring schedule to only be during school breaks. Now touring is his primary form of employment.

ROB FLAX: It definitely changes it a little bit to have that pressure of like, if I don’t deliver a jaw-dropping show, people won’t come to the next one. So there’s a little bit of an edge to it that didn’t used to be there. If you’ve been able to keep a captive audience of 25 fifth graders then a paying audience of adults is really easy to keep them focused. [laughs] I’m never going to lose an audience by going off on a tangent at this point because my years as classroom has taught me: “Oh, they’re losing it, I need to start the next song now.” Children are way faster and way blunter and they’re less polite. They will tell you exactly why they’re bored. Very useful feedback. [laughs]

JOSHUA CROKE: Working with dancers opened Rob’s eyes to how our body’s movement and response to music is a major factor to consider when composing songs.

ROB FLAX: Something about rhythm is really innate. We as humans crave patterns. Rhythm is the most fundamental pattern in music. If you hear something *starts beat boxing* immediately, I can’t help myself. Some part of me is going to start moving at that speed. Now, part of the art of being a composer is doing it at the right speed that enough people’s bodies move. So I’ve been learning to listen to my body, and learning to watch other people’s bodies and their responses and see how they move. And certain speeds of things and certain tempos and time signatures and grooves and beats literally make people move differently. You can compel someone to movement.

JOSHUA CROKE: During his shows, Rob will play a mixture of original songs, some improv and maybe some instrumental songs. He says his live shows feel more like a singer-songwriter set — that happen to have a lot of cool gadgets.

ROB FLAX: The other thing that is sort of primal and essential is human voice. So the vocal quality of music. If things sound like a voice, violin, oboe, duduke, a lot of woodwind instruments cello, these sort of soaring, long legato lines of these instruments resonate very immediately and instinctively with people because they sound like someone singing. And that’s the oldest instrument, is the human voice. At some point I had this revelation, I was playing some jazz and people weren’t listening and as soon as I started singing along with the violin, like I was playing a line, I don’t know if this will pick up in the mic here but my violin is right here so I can demonstrate this. So instead of something like *violin plays* — to actually sing along with it *singing along*  — immediately it has a bigger impact.

JOSHUA CROKE: Rob started writing songs for his first solo record in 2011, and he didn’t release it until 2017. He says he would sit on a track for months or years thinking of ways he could rework it. Rob’s learning to go with his gut and his first impression.

ROB FLAX: There’s definitely some perfectionism that comes with the classical training that I received on violin. There’s a very high standard of excellence for what’s considered good in that realm. When I’m making something that’s my own, the only person I have to judge that by is myself. Is there an emotional response? Or is there a kinesthetic response? Does it make me want to move? That’s another way that I judge what I’m making in the moment very quickly. If it makes me feel something or makes me want to move, I know I’m onto something and I can just — that’s enough. It doesn’t have to be solo bach, it’s me. And it’s me right now. And it’s working.

JOSHUA CROKE: Watching Rob record in his home studio was like watching a performance. He was dancing and grooving, really feeling every beat and note he put out. He is really a one man band, his hands and feet both working as he hums, sings, thinks, and plays. His process was fascinating, mesmerizing and masterful. Even without the finished product just yet, just watching Rob work was an experience in itself.

ROB FLAX: What is the name of this podcast?

JOSHUA CROKE: Experience This Podcast.

ROB FLAX: Experience This!

JOSHUA CROKE: XP This Pod.

ROB FLAX: I’m going to hit save, this is the first save! Fingers crossed!

JOSHUA CROKE: Before we had even arrived to Rob’s studio, his wheels were already turning about his influences for making podcast music, and how to make a catchy but meaningful theme song.

ROB FLAX: We talked a little bit about having a theme and sort of an opening idea. That one I really came up with a little melodic riff, and that happened just over the first cup of coffee in the first ten minutes of us sitting here, I thought of a little melody.

*Raw version of our theme music plays*

ROB FLAX: And it was sort of inspired by the theme music of other shows, I think of BJ Leiderman as a great composer who wrote all the stuff for NPR shows. After I had this little melodic idea, then it was just about how do I arrange it? And what instruments will support it best? So used all the latest obsessions — I’ve got my pedalboard plugged in. Tried all different sounds, messed around with different delays and octovers and synth sounds and drum machines and tried to find a groove that would support it, found a tempo that was right, and then just improvised and layered and improvised and layered, and messed around until I caught something.

JOSHUA CROKE: I’m always looking for new music, playing around with discovery playlists and websites specifically to show you something new. To get the perspective from someone who creates music, we asked Rob his thoughts on how people can discover new music. He says there’s a lot of cultural conditioning that comes with music, depending on where you’re from, your cultural background, and even what your family likes to listen to. What you’re exposed to when you’re young can impact your musical taste for the rest of your life.

ROB FLAX: There’s a lot of sort of social signifiers that are already attached to music, and part of it is if we’re exposed to it and that’s the only impression we get of it, that’s what we’ll listen to it for and as. But if we are early enough sort of de-programed to go, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of breaktaking stuff out there and all of its soul and emotion and intention.’ You can get something out of everything.

JOSHUA CROKE: We’ve all been there: you’re in the car, or at a party, or just hanging out with friends or family, and someone hands you a phone and says, “Play whatever you want.” There’s an acute sense of anxiety well, at least for me, it’s much more significant, and sense of responsibility that comes with controlling the playlist.

ROB FLAX: Well, that’s when you have a choice. You have to decide, ‘What is my role as curator here? Am I going to be the DJ who supports the commercial value of things and play what everyone’s most likely to like? Or am I going to make a stand with my choice of playlist and play something that people haven’t heard before, but I think they might enjoy?

JOSHUA CROKE: We asked Rob, why do you think music is important in the world? What benefits does it provide society?

ROB FLAX: Well, I’ve got three thoughts on that. Okay: Stevie Wonder, Mr. Rogers, Uber Driver.

JOSHUA CROKE: First up, Stevie Wonder. Rob saw Stevie Wonder speak to Janelle Monáe in LA in 2017. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers was awarding him with the Key of Life Award, basically a lifetime achievement award for music. Stevie was the first person to win this award, and people who follow in his footsteps can receive the award moving forward. Rob says, in every movement for social change music is present, and Stevie Wonder embodies that. He says Stevie’s answer to a question Janelle Monáe posed still sticks with him to this day.

ROB FLAX: She asked him, “In these times, Stevie, what should we be doing with our music?” And he said, and I’ll never forget this, “Never be afraid to speak your truth, but do it with love.” And so for me, when I play music, a lot of it is just a joyous thing and it’s for me to try and give energy to whoever is on the receiving end of it. I’m literally vibrating molecules of air, I’m literally sharing energy with someone. It’s to spread joy in that way and hopefully it connects to that.

JOSHUA CROKE: Next, Mr. Rogers.

ROB FLAX: Mr. Rogers is a big hero of mine, he had a music composition degree. He used that music composition degree and got involved in media and made a children’s show where he used the songs that he wrote to impact the development of millions of children. That’s the highest possible ideal in terms of using your art for good. You know, he literally used music to change the world.

JOSHUA CROKE: So Stevie Wonder and Mr. Rogers used music to change the world, but what about this uber driver?

ROB FLAX: So this is a weird story, but it really stuck with me. I was taking an Uber or maybe it was a Lyft, I forget which, but I was in a ride-sharing vehicle heading to play music somewhere. And the driver asked me, he said, what was it that you do? I said I’m a musician. And he said, “Oh, music eh? Music is like a knife.” I said, “Excuse me?”

“Yeah, music is like a knife. You can use a knife to cut up your food and to share it, or you can use a knife to kill someone. There are many different uses for this. It’s a very powerful tool. You have a responsibility with this tool to use it for good.”

JOSHUA CROKE: And Rob is trying to use his music and performances to do good in the world. He says playing music connects him with other people to create a shared experience.

ROB FLAX: I’m a person, singing songs hopefully about a shared human experience, I just instead of bringing a band brought this crazy technological set up and have twenty years of violin training to support it. It’s been a letting go of virtuosity as the ideal. I’m trying to find a balance. Ideally if I can make people laugh, make them cry, make them dance and make them sort of wonder, I’ve done my job.

JOSHUA CROKE: This is the last episode of season one! Thank you so much for listening to our show. Our goal is to spread ideas through stories; share experiences that you may resonate with and some that may open your mind to something new. If you have a story you want to share with the world — send us a note. We’d love to hear from you.

Experience This Podcast is created and produced by Action! By Design. At Action! By Design, we help organizations and companies produce their ideas. Have an idea for a program to tackle youth achievement in your community? We can help. Want to launch your own podcast that shares your ideas with the world? We can help. Need to organize an arts festival in the city? You get the point. From ideation and strategy to design and implementation, our team uses our citizen-centered design method to create experiences that people remember.

Experience This Podcast is hosted by me, Joshua Croke, founder of Action! By Design. Our producer is Mariel Cariker. Additional mixing by Giuliano D’Orazio. Music for this episode was created by Rob Flax. Thanks Rob!

You can find us on social media at @XPThisPod. To see behind the scenes photos and videos of our recording session with Rob, and to learn more about our organization, visit our website at action by design dot co. If you liked the season, please consider leaving a review and telling your friends. It’ll help us come back strong for season two! Thanks again.

*sound of random keys played on the piano*

JOSHUA CROKE: That’s it, that’s a wrap. [laughs]