Surface To Air Missive has been one of my favorite finds of the last couple of years. For me, it’s the holy grail of music finds. First, I’ve never heard anything else quite like it before. Second, it’s a DIY project of a single mastermind…Taylor Ross. Third, he happens to be one of the most talented musicians and songwriters I’ve ever heard. And finally, I don’t think it would ever be possible to get tired of listening to his music. There’s so much crazy, weird and beautiful shit going on in each song that you’re bound to discover something new and genius every time you listen.
I sent Taylor a bunch of questions about his music, but I’m still unable to comprehend how he makes music like this all by himself. Plain and simple, he’s an enigma.
While you read the interview stream his latest album A V here…
Interview with Taylor Ross of Surface To Air Missive…
[RP] How long have you been writing and recording music and how did you get into it?
[Taylor] Since I was 15, I just had nothing better to do.
[RP] What inspires/motivates you to write and record music?
[Taylor] I always have to have projects to work on, whether its making music or making other things. I just love creating and completing things. Also still really have nothing better to do.
[RP] What is the meaning behind the name Surface To Air Missive? And what about the album title of ‘A V’?
[Taylor] Surface to Air Missive is the title of an Alden Penner song. I don’t remember anything about the song, the title just stuck with me. A V is shortened from “With A V”. On tour, venues would constantly misspell or confuse the word Missive with Missile. I’d constantly find myself saying, “Missive, with a V.”
[RP] Can you walk us through your process for writing and developing a song?
[Taylor] I just noodle around on a 3/4 scale classical till chords take shape and vocal melodies/words present themselves. Most of the arrangement comes during recording.
[RP] How long did it take to develop and write your latest album, A V?
[Taylor] 4-5 months.
[RP] In most, if not all, of your songs you change directions and time signatures and create really impressive and complex songs. Is this something that comes naturally and easy for you? Do you spend a lot of time mapping out each song?
[Taylor] Changing time signatures just feels natural to me a lot of the time, I’m more melody oriented I think, so I allow signatures to float around to accommodate melodies and progressions. I do spend a lot of time mapping out songs yes but I try not to overthink or force anything.
[RP] It’s also impressive how you manage to blend the complexities of your music with pop-ier, for lack of a better word, vocal melodies that make it more digestible for listeners. How did you develop this style and was this intentional to appeal to a wider audience?
[Taylor] I don’t think its me trying to appeal to an audience so much as just trying to find the most obvious/pleasing melody for a given progression.
[RP] What was your path like to become so proficient at all the instruments you play on your records?
[Taylor] I sold my soul to the devil.
[RP] How would you describe your growth as a songwriter and musician since your first self-titled record in 2013?
[Taylor] For better or worse I’ve learned how to write more conventional structures. That first record is really weird. As far as musicianship goes I doubt I’ve gotten any better at anything other than recorder and singing since then.
[RP] I noticed that your use of effects is super sparse throughout your catalog, especially on A V. Is that a conscious decision on your part? If so, why?
[Taylor] I guess I’m in the ‘less is more’ camp. Reverb drenching and psychedelic embellishments are good for creating atmosphere but I don’t make atmospheric music. I’ll throw some fuzz or phaser on a guitar solo every now and then to make people’s ears perk up. Using effects sparsely makes it more exciting when you do use them.
[RP] The recorder seems to be a new element for you in A V and even the record cover features the instrument. Why the recorder?
[Taylor] Well I love woodwinds but I just don’t have the patience to learn the flute. I’ve still got my soprano recorder from 5th grade and I’ve used it as a novelty over the years. But then I found a cheap Yamaha alto at a thrift store 5 years ago and the timbre can be really beautiful, not a novelty at all. I acquired a tenor as well and my roommate had a bass recorder lying around, that’s the whole set. Recorder rock isn’t too common so it was cool to try something different. Its a pretty versatile tone too, you can layer them and create chords that fill the same sonic space as a shimmering organ or simple synth. Or lead parts that sounds very close to flute. You can also make some pretty strange dissonant noises with them.
[RP] Are there specific themes or types of experiences you tend to write about more?
[Taylor] I often write about being alone but not lonely. That feeling you get when you take a walk by yourself and you have no where to be and no one to answer to. Being alone is great. I also really admire that sort of casual street-wise Phil Lynott style narrative (hanging with the boys down at Dino’s). I try to incorporate that every now and then to the extent that it’s not obnoxious or absurd. At this point I want to completely avoid writing about romance because its so trite and obvious.
[RP] Where did you record the album and who did you record it with?
[Taylor] A townhouse in Tallahassee, FL all by myself.
[RP] Since you record everything yourself how do you make your records sound like a full band is playing? Are there any techniques you use to make it sound like you’re recording with a full band?
[Taylor] I did play all the instruments with the exception of the classical guitar duet Return of Swan, which featured Josh Martin. Recording in a lively big open room, using room mics, recording mono sources (like guitar) in stereo, can all help to create the illusion of mic bleed and liven up a mix. Not using a click track and letting small imperfections slide will help it sound more live too.
[RP] How did you develop your recording skills? Was it all trial and error or did you go to school to learn?
[Taylor] Trial and error. The internet.
[RP] How complete are your songs and ideas before you record them?
[Taylor] I’ll always have a rhythm guitar part, vocal melody/lyrics, full structure before I start recording.
[RP] Can you walk us through what the recording process was like? What do you usually record first? Do you usually record each overdub as a single long take or are you punching in and punching out, re-recording sections that you may not have been able to get through in one go?
[Taylor] I’ll usually do drums first. For A V I recorded multiple drum takes to tape, then bounced into my DAW and compiled highlights from each take into a master take. Then I overdubbed the rest of the parts digitally, in multiple takes.
[RP] How much time does it usually take you to record a record or a single song? It seems like it would take a really long time if you’re doing everything yourself.
[Taylor] 5-6 months is usually normal. I get pretty determined about half way in and that’s when the juices really start flowing. With A V I had a song a week schedule that I pushed myself to adhere to. I didn’t have a job at the time so A V was a full time gig.
[RP] Do you have anyone helping you with the recording part…a recording/audio engineer? Or someone to just hit record for you?
[Taylor] No, not really necessary in this day and age. I also feel self conscious when other people are sitting there watching me record. Even thinking about neighbors hearing me record drums can psych me out.
[RP] Does what you’re listening to at the time of writing and recording an album influence you at all?
[RP] What were listening to the most during A V?
[Taylor] Incredible String Band I think was the biggest influence on this record. I listened to Wee Tam and the Big Huge nonstop for weeks. Hence the more psych-folk acoustic nature. All those Joe Boyd produced British folk rock bands have been super influential to me. Also been listening to and trying to incorporate more classical music, thats probably the other big force on A V.
[RP] After the recording is complete how involved are you in the post recording process (ie. mixing, mastering, effects, etc.)?
[Taylor] The only thing I don’t do is mastering.
[RP] Finally, I’m always curious about how other people consume music. Do you have a favorite ritual, place or activity while listening to music?
[Taylor] I like driving around in my truck recklessly at night, blasting a good tape or the classical station.