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Listen closely—no, really closely—to the tiny, sometimes song-altering noises pouring into your headphones.
Listen past the guitar riffs, high hat strikes and falsettos. If you still hear an unrecognizable sound, then, well, congratulations, you've just discovered found sounds—noises that range from simple hand clapping to actual raindrops hitting leaves in the rainforest. The appearances of these sounds aren't anything brand-new—bands as local as Sleep Whale and as universal as Sigur Rós have hopped on this found sound trend wagon, creating a truly unique, personable sound. But you'll never guess what, where and how found sounds are created.
Sleep Whale's Bruce Blay jokes that his friends consider him the "sample master" or "sample wizard" for taking sounds from his collection of over 100 sound effect vinyl records and mixing them into some of his own found sounds. But it's all part of a process, Blay explains. "I use the sounds to create more atmosphere, make it more surreal—as in making something that's fictitious more real," he says. "I'm creating a little world for it."
Sleep Whale, Blay continues, is drawn toward a more nature-type sound—something obvious to anyone who has heard the band's recent full-length debut, Houseboat. But what might be less obvious is the fact that Blay recorded some of that record's sounds while studying abroad in a rainforest in Chile. His goal in doing so was simple. "For me, when I heard bands that did it, I paid attention a lot more," he says. "It felt like, oh my gosh, I'm in a musical right now."
Of course, sometimes found sound inspiration can come from quite low-brow means, too. Remember the bathroom scene in Dumb and Dumber? No? Look it up, watch it and then see if you can relate any of the sounds from that scene to any of the ocean sounds in Sleep Whale's tracks. Sure enough, Blay did just that, sampling the flushing noises from that scene for one of his band's songs. As for the simultaneous grunts and splashes that happen during the same clip? They're all in there too—just distorted beyond recognition.
In live settings, Blay incorporates his found sounds via his sampler box, which is full of pre-recorded nature noise mixes ready to play with the band's live acoustic guitars, violins, drums and cello.
"People after our show will be like, 'Oh, weird sounds! I like it!"' Blay says.
Sleep Whale's hardly alone in the local found sound set, though. Another Denton-based band has taken the same idea and molded a completely homey feeling to its music. Baruch the Scribe took its EP, Evil Memories, in a traditionally backward direction, from a clean studio album to an at-home recording, by adding creaking doors, a girlfriend walking through gravel and a room full of screaming friends into the mix.
"You can sit and listen to it in the headphones, close your eyes, and it just feels like you're right there," says Judson Valdez. For Baruch The Scribe, Valdez writes, records, sings, picks at acoustic guitars and ukuleles, and shakes bells—"shaky things," in his own words. The sounds he adds into the band's final recordings, he says, tend to come from the people he knows and the places he's been.
"The EP opens with my girlfriend and me walking though her old town," Valdez explains. "She was just kind of in this weird state of remembrance. I just flipped my recorder on my phone because I thought it was so beautiful hearing her talk about it."
Found sounds aren't as complex as they may come off to be, though. They're usually pretty informal by nature—artists simply throw in whatever sound makes most sense in that particular moment. Valdez, for instance, likes to keep the places he records loose—like in his closet, even. The band has also snuck into the University of North Texas' Music Building to record and is planning on recording in a chapel at Texas Woman's University.
"Something I found for myself," Valdez says, "is that, if you can create a good feeling in your atmosphere, then that's gonna reflect how you sound."
Take the creaking noises in Baruch the Scribe's song "Isn't it pretty to think so (nbr.1)." Those were created at Valdez' parents' house with a microphone, creaking doors and creaking floors. "Something in my head felt like there needed to be creaking," he explains.
Valdez says that when he heard other bands—among them acts like Grizzly Bear and Godspeed You! Black Emperor—using found sounds, he felt like he was actually a part of the music. That's a feeling he hopes his own band's fans can experience.
"I started hearing that kind of thing and wondering, 'Why does that make sense to these people who are doing it?'" he says. "I really like the idea of just throwing things in there, just for their own sake, instead of making some huge thing out of it."
There aren't too many people, though, who recognize the "found sounds" term. But take a guy who pretty much lives at Hailey's and The Echo Lab in Denton, ask him about those little pieces of entirely unique noises, and he can share a few stories
"Once you take it out of its visual and physical concept, you use your ears and go with the sound and minds respond to that," says Justin Collins, who plays his part in the Denton music scene as sound engineer at Hailey's, recording engineer at The Echo Lab and as a musician himself in the band Old Snack. Collins says that at Hailey's most of the found sounds the bands use have already been sampled, a la Blay's Sleep Whale. When attempted to be recreated live, well, that's where the band can run into problems, Collins continues. "At one session, there was a band whose producer was trying to find the perfect shake or sound and the percussionist scratched his arm with all of the mics turned all the way up and he said, 'That's it! That's the sound!' So the drummer had to sit there for four minutes and scratch his arm."
But what is it about these found sounds? Do they really take listeners front and center into their own musical?
"I guess I look at it that way," Valdez says. "Like using sound as part of the music and not just some [random] sound."