A conversation with Greg Chambers, AKA Superfluous Motor
Since Greg Chambers put ‘Trifecta’ online for free, only a small portion of the prog/fusion populace has picked up on it. Quite perplexing.
‘Trifecta’ is a mammoth, immersive three-piece album–one part Fusion, one part Funk, one part Prog–propelled by challenging rhythms, playful twists and turns, and ever-changing moods that wrap themselves around you like a blanket. One moment, the music hangs in the background, quietly and innocently, the next its melodies grab you and don’t let go.
During the recent lockdown, I’ve come to appreciate both qualities of the music; the reason I got in touch with Greg in the first place. As a bonus, Superfluous Motor was a well-kept secret only a few hundred people knew about.
That’s no surprise. Superfluous Motor is a one-man-band that operates entirely outside of the music business. You won’t find ‘Trifecta’ on CD or vinyl. You can’t catch Superfluous Motor on tour.
I sat down with Greg–virtually, with a very safe social distance of 6000 km–and asked him about his life as an artist outside of the mainstream.
Let me start by quoting some of the comments listeners left below your YouTube videos: “Soundtrack to my life.” “Perfect music for writing.” “Listening to it while hiking in British Columbia.” It seems like your music takes people places. How would explain that specific ‘transporting’ quality?
Greg Chambers (Superfluous Motor): “First off, it honours me deeply to see comments like that. Knowing that my music has had that effect on even one person, let alone several people, is encouraging and meaningful to me.”
On his approach to albums:
“Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”
“I think the ‘secret sauce’ that might make my music immersive–for lack of a better word–stems from my progressive rock influences. All my favourite 70s era prog rock albums have the same sort of immersive vibe. There’s a lot of layers in the music and you can grab on to different aspects on each listen. I also usually end up releasing full-length concept albums instead of a bunch of singles compiled together.”
Why do concepts fit you better than regular albums?
“I always gravitated to the idea of songs in an album having a flow and all being part of a bigger picture or complimenting each other, especially when the transitions between tracks are seamless. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but the singles approach is much more common these days. Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”
‘Trifecta: Fusion’ was inspired by space travel and exploration of the unknown. ‘Idiosyncrasies’ deals with the “quirks, mental illnesses and characteristics that make us who we are”. How do these concepts take shape?
“Usually the full concept for the album doesn’t come together until the arrangement for the songs are mostly finished. Sometimes, I’ll start out with a full concept idea like in ‘The Floating Orange Incident’, ‘Shipwrecked’, ‘Kaleidoscope’ or ‘Idiosyncrasies’.”
“The concepts usually help as a creative prompt for me. The three genres in ‘Trifecta’ allowed me to focus my efforts and make things a little less ‘all over the place’ than my usual content. Although I didn’t fully succeed as the last two songs on the Fusion section were basically mild Vaporwave tracks. But it did help me maintain focus and finish the stupidly ambitious three albums on one album. I also might have overexerted myself because other than the ‘Double Vision’ album with Caius Hubris, I didn’t release a Superfluous Motor album last year, breaking the “minimum: one album a year” streak I was on.
Tell me about your writing process. How do you start and elaborate your ideas?
“It varies. Sometimes it’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while. ‘Kaleidoscope’ was a bucket list concept album I’ve always wanted to do. Inspired by Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, I wanted to write an hour of continuous unbroken music with no or minimal repeating parts. The idea for that was to use music to replicate the effect of looking through a kaleidoscope. Whether I successfully accomplished that is up for debate.”
“Some songs come from trial and error. From beating my head against it until the song finally has a structure and flow. I usually write the drum and bass parts first and add the keys, melody and harmony elements on top. Other songs are smaller parts that I write individually and find creative and interesting ways to get them all to fit together. Some songs are piano pieces adapted for a full band arrangement. And if all else fails, I’ll mimic an existing idea or concept and put my own spin on it. I’m sure my ADHD also has a bit of an effect of the twists and turns some of my songs take too.”
The question that must arise with everyone who hears your music: composing, producting, playing and programming … how do you pull it off all on your own?
“I don’t want to ruin the magic for anyone but most of it is me noodling around with a midi keyboard and a bunch of instrument plugins in FL Studio [a Digital Audio Workstation – UM]. Then I take the songs and mix and master them. I stick to plugins with high-quality samples for drums and bass and the keyboards.”
About artistic freedom:
“I don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound”
“The drums are all hand programmed by me, but I also have a very good drummer friend who studied music. He taught me a lot of the theory and drum techniques to replicate and kind of pulled me into the jazz, funk and fusion stuff in general. On occasion, I’ve invited musical friends to meander around with me and often take their suggestions or knowledge of instrument into consideration during the process.”
You’ve called yourself ‘not a people person’. Is working alone a direct consequence of your personality?
“Partly, maybe. Referring to myself as “not a people person” is more of a tongue in cheek approach to my mildly introverted nature. I have a great circle of friends and have played countless gigs in a few different bands over the years.”
“Being a family man with two kids keeps me busy, but I still work on my music whenever I get the chance. I usually get a few hours of writing or recording done almost every day, but I will also say that lately, my song graveyard is growing rapidly. I’d estimate that maybe 20% of what I write ever sees the light of day.”
I suppose recording on your own, in your home, grants you a lot of freedom?
“Indeed. It’s always been a fever dream to maybe organize a larger group of musicians interested in playing the intricate sounds of Superfluous. But for now, the solo, low pressure, non-committal, full creative control, and non-gigging nature of Superfluous Motor means that it will always be a project that I work on.”
“I don’t necessarily stick to specific genres and don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound. The freedom to do whatever I want has been a great way to learn and grow as a musician. But at the end of the day Superfluous Motor is a vessel for me to produce music that I want to make and want to hear.”
You’ve worked together with Canadian rapper Caius Hubris. It seems to be an odd pairing, but together you made the quite spectacular ‘Double Vision’ and record two tracks for Trifecta. What makes it work?
“It’s that Canadian Hospitality. I think we work together well because we don’t have strict creative limits. No idea is too crazy or stupid for us to do (see our silly funk cover of Mad World for example). There are no egos when we collaborate so we just get out of each other’s way and let each other do what we do best.”
“Caius is also extremely good at guiding me during the arranging process. I might have an idea that is okay at best and he will suggest a couple things that turn it into pure magic. It also helps that we’re basically the same person personality-wise, no joke. He’s basically the extroverted version of me … or am I the introverted version of him?”
You’re very good at crafting interesting rhythms. Those drum tracks are so precise and adventurous, even in crazy time signatures. Maybe they are the secret ingredient of the Superfluous Motor sound to me. Why do they work so well?
“Probably because of my overuse of polyrhythms. I use them a lot. For the uninitiated, a polyrhythm is where multiple rhythms are layered on top of each other. The drums parts are also usually the first thing I write and everything else is written around them. I wish I knew why they’re so effective but I do know that if a song kicks off with a killer drum groove, it’ll have me hooked from the start.”
About the unlikely influence of techno:
“I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I made some questionable techno and grew a deeper respect for the process”
Though ‘Trifecta’ is based around funk, prog and fusion, I can’t help but feel the spirit of electronics artists such as Aphex Twin or Squarepusher or Amon Tobin. Or am I insane?
“Electronic music always finds its influence into my music somehow–probably from my early novelty techno music days. It’s not a conscious decision, but you’re definitely not insane.”
Are you saying techno was an early influence on you?
“If I remember correctly, I disliked techno music back in the day. I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I downloaded FL Studio and made some questionable techno, grew a deeper respect for the process and realized that making music was kind of hard but endlessly entertaining and rewarding.”
“I kept making music until it sounded pretty good (to me) and eventually that silly techno project eventually evolved into Superfluous Motor. However, I didn’t publicly release works. I lacked direction and confidence until coming up with the ‘Shattered Groove’ album. I liked that album enough to release it and kinda figured that it did no good sitting unheard on my hard drive.”
Talking about electronic music, some of your tracks wouldn’t sound out of place in a videogame. You were a gamer, right?
“I’ve always been a huge gaming nerd. I was born in the late 80s and grew up with Nintendo, Super Nintendo and the like. There’s a lot of amazing music in video games and it has always been part of my life. The influence video game music has on me is mostly subconscious (unless I’m making a chiptune track). I don’t directly try or intend to emulate or evoke video game soundtracks in my music, but a lot of my music would fit nicely into a video game.”
“That said, I was working on a cover that featured a mashup of me performing my favourite tracks from ‘Gradius III’ [a shooter game, originally released by Konami in 1989 – UM], but it was eventually scrapped and added to the graveyard because I couldn’t figure out how to end it.”
Niagara Falls and Herbie
You’re from Niagara Falls, pretty close to Toronto, and you’re a big prog fan. So I guess we need to talk about Rush.
“I’ve always enjoyed Rush’s music and it’s neat that they’re local. My childhood friend was Neil Peart’s nephew. Sadly, I never got to meet Neil. I’ve also been to Lakeside Park [the title of a 1975 Rush song, Peart lived close to LP during his childhood – UM] several times throughout my life and rode the carousel as a kid. With all that said, Canadian radio has a 35% ‘Canadian content’ quota, so Rush and other popular Canadian acts have been slightly overplayed. Unfortunately, due to oversaturation, I haven’t truly delved deep into Rush’s music. But their overall influence on the music industry has most certainly had an influence on my music too.”
Do the Niagara Falls inspire your music in some way?
“As a born and raised Niagara Falls resident, the allure of the big water drip mostly eludes me. But there is a lot of beauty here, lots of nice nature trails. Going for a hike at the gorge is always an inspiring time.”
“It’s unfortunate that the local music scene here is mostly background music cover bands at bars. But it is a nice city to live in and I love living here. Most of my musical inspiration and influences stem from the city of Hamilton (about a 50 minute drive from the Falls). Hamilton is where I did most of my gigging in the local funk fusion bands and where I truly learned and grew as a musician. It’s a vibe.”
About Herbie Hancock:
“Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general”
Who do you consider to be your peers?
“Calling them peers would be putting myself a bit too high on the pedestal. So I’ll just say that my influences that I feel stylistically connected with are probably: Medeski, Martin & Wood, Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Focus, Yes, Tower of Power, Jethro Tull, Lettuce, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, Soft Machine, Billy Cobham, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and, in spirit, Ben Folds.
Herbie is one of your biggest idols, right? Why is that? And is there any chance that the synth opening to Anxiety (of ‘Idiosyncracies) was influenced by Chameleon?
“Darn, you caught me! The synth bass intro to Anxiety is dangerous close, treading into stolen/rip-off territory. Herbie Hancock is definitely my number one idol and biggest influence. His entire approach and attitude towards music was life-changing for me. Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general.”
“There was a documentary he made titled ‘Possibilities’ that documented him recording his album, also named ‘Possibilities’ [watch it on Herbie’s YouTube Channel – UM]. The album is a big collaboration between him and all kinds of different artists. Seeing Herbie’s attitude towards these other musicians and his attitude towards music in general was the most eye-opening and inspiring thing I had ever seen up until that point in my life.”
Tech talk. Bill Laurance of Snarky Puppy told me he always admired Herbie’s set-up of keyboards on the back sleeve of the Sunlight album? I suppose you love all that vintage stuff too?
“I wish I had the money to own any genuine vintage gear myself. But the Hammond B3 Organ will always be ‘the one’ for me. I started playing piano when I was a kid and didn’t see my first Hammond organ until I was about 18, but it was a love at first sight moment.”
“I luckily have access to a vintage Hammond C3 to play and practice on, which is exactly the same as the B3 the only difference is that the cabinet has an alternate design. My gig keyboards are a Hammond SK2 for organs and a Moog Sub 37 for synth leads, I also sometimes use a Korg SV1 for that vintage Rhodes and Wurli sound. Currently, for recording, I use a Novation Launchkey 61 for organs, bass, synths and clavs and the 88 key Korg SV1 for pianos and electric pianos, with both keyboards functioning as midi controllers.”
You grew up in the 90s and 00s. How did you experience the music and how did it influence your tastes?
“My brother, who is two years older than me, would use cassette tapes to record songs we liked off the boombox radio we had. I grew up listening to The Beatles, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Motley Crüe, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit and pretty much everything that was popular over the years on the Canadian TV channel Much Music, basically Canadian MTV. When Napster became a thing then we burnt CDs of music we liked and so on and so forth.”
“My brother started playing guitar at a very young age and became a gigging musician before I ever considered doing anything other than basic noodling on the piano. He then got me listening to stuff like Converge, Daughters and Dillinger Escape Plan. I grew up in a rock and roll and hardcore/metal household and can’t quite remember how I got into prog and fusion stuff.”
On the 70s:
“If I was a musician then, I would probably be a guitarist. Lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 is no fun.”
How do listen to music yourself nowadays?
“My preferred way to listen to music is currently through Spotify while driving in my car. Driving my car on a quiet road is a nice place to be alone and fully absorbed into the music. I usually try to focus on a specific artist and listen to one of their full albums in one sitting. If I find an album I really enjoy that will be on repeat for a while. But I also will check out stuff on YouTube if the performances are filmed, like Snarky Puppy or Vulfpeck.”
“My wife and I also have a music jar with several artists (52+) written on pieces of paper for our two year old son to draw an artist from once a week and then we dive deep into their musical catalog, in hopes to expose him to a variety of musical themes and styles.”
It seems that the internet is crucial for you to get your music out, even to other parts of the world. Still, there’s so much music around and it’s so hard to be heard. So how do you reach the right people?
“Very true, Superfluous Motor would be a bunch of tunes collecting dust on a hard drive (or reel-to-reel tape) if the internet didn’t exist. As for getting heard? I wish I knew, it mostly seems like a mix of luck and sharing to the right place at the right time. Most of my growth was from sharing tunes on reddit. But I haven’t been doing that much lately due to their self-promotion restrictions.”
Suppose you started out in the 70s or 80s. Ever thought about how you would be recording and distributing your music in those decades?
“Superfluous Motor would be a lot less ambitious and probably a cover band if I was doing it in that era. I’d also probably be a guitar player because lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 plus 300lbs of synths and keyboards is no fun.”
All over the place (like Kandinsky)
You haven’t put out a physical release yet. Why is that? I’d be happy to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to get that 3LP edition of ‘Trifecta’ out there 🙂
“It’s mostly monetary reasons combined with subpar organizational skills. The downside of being a one-man-show is that creating content and managing social platforms, adding merch and managing all that on my own might be out of my skill set. I hope I can get it all sorted out one day, I’d love to get my albums pressed on vinyl and offer it to those who would want it or even have my logo on a hat, shirt or rad hoodie.”
The Kandinsky covers that accompany your releases would really work great on a 12” record sleeve. Why Kandinsky?
“I always liked abstract art and felt it fit the ‘all over the place’ style of my music. I saw Kandinsky’s work was public domain and started using it. After it became a theme, my wife came home with a huge Kandinsky print larger than our car that now hangs out in the jam space for inspiring creative flow.”
Ever thought about going professional as a recording or touring artist and giving up your day job?
“I think about that every day, I’d love to do this for a living, it’s basically the only thing I’m good at. But, I’m also terrible at self promotion and putting myself out there … let’s just say the seeds been planted but who knows what will come of it.”
Finally, what do you dream of achieving with Superfluous Motor?
“It’s likely to always be my humble little solo project for making and releasing music. As for the future projects I’d love to see more collaborators infusing bits of the work . Wherever it leads, it’ll be sure to be ever in motion.”