Jon Kukuk is a multi-instrumentalist based in North Carolina. Read on as Jon generously digs into his creative process in this fascinating dose DIY QnA.
1. Tell us about yourself and the music you make
I have been a musician for 46 years, and a solo artist since 1996, when I gave up live performances in lieu of recording. I currently live in North Carolina with my beautiful wife but I have roots taking me back to rural Illinois, where I lived most of my life along the Mississippi river and in central Illinois.
My style has progressed since I started writing music back in 1972 from rock n’ roll to the mellower, experimental lo-fi music I produce today. My work includes my self-released 2008 album, Uncharted Currents and my upcoming album, Between the Toad and the Moon. Some of the songs heard on both of these albums date back to jam sessions from the early 1970’s, but over the years, these songs have evolved and I have re-recorded multiple versions of the same song.
Depending on the sound quality of each track you can probably discern which songs were recorded in the 1970’s when the technology I had access to was a little more primitive to the smoother sounds in my current work. In fact, I usually do not play the same song the same way twice because I have never written down the notes to my songs. Each time I play a slightly different way depending on how I am feeling at the time and how I want to reflect the emotion into my work.
As the sole song writer, composer, performer, and recording engineer, the process of developing these songs has been painstakingly done layer by layer over a long period of time. However, I feel that in order to be authentically me, it is important to take the time to make my music have a quality that can transcend me and become my legacy for my daughters after I am gone. I think that my philosophy can be heard in my style of music because I embrace mistakes and don’t attempt to edit them out. I am not trying to make my music sound like something it is not. I want my music to be an honest representation of who I am.
2. What are you working on at the moment? Tell us about your latest project
My current project, Between the Toad and the Moon, includes a mixture of some of my older work spanning back to 1975 to my modern work. It is projected to be released either at the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021. This album diverges from my first album in many ways. For one, I have collaborated with other artists including a violinist and vocalist, which I have never done before.
It is important to me that each song has a fresh component. I find that listening to one style of music makes for a stagnant listening experience. I endeavor for each song to be a unique listening experience and not necessarily to flow with other tracks on the same album. I think that it makes this album a more eclectic listening experience than my previous album. I am also trying to find local instrumentalists who would be interested in working with me. Instruments I would love to include in this album include a dulcimer, banjo, and pedal steel guitar.
The title and musical sound of this album can be attributed to an experience I had recently at home, living in the remote region of the Appalachian Mountains. Because we are so secluded often the only sounds we hear come from the wildlife surrounding us. One night, shortly after dusk, I was walking outside and was admiring the full moon, a little toad jumped out in front of me on the path. In that moment I felt so much peace in the stillness around me.
It was a very memorable moment because I was able to just appreciate life and my small place within the world. That dulcet night inspired me to bring whimsical and folksy elements into the songs included on this album including folk, blues, bluegrass, and country. My art style makes my music more experimental and open to all genres of sound.
3. What’s your process for making music (songwriting, gear etc)
Although I’ve been making music for almost 50 years now, my life’s work can ultimately be cataloged into roughly 50-60 songs. This is because I tend to revamp and build upon older works than to constantly churn out new music. This is why the foundation of most of my songs has a late 70’s rock feel to it.
I started with the base of the song, which may have been written decades ago, and then overlay it with different types of sound and morph it into a new style. These songs are created by starting on a core instrument such as the drums or guitar and then adding bass to create a focal point. I generally don’t have a plan as I start to play, I spontaneously choose notes that reflect how I am feeling in the moment.
After I have established the rhythm I begin to play with it by adding in other sounds on my synthesizer or re-recording instruments in other ways. On the other hand, as I’ve previously mentioned, I’m experimenting with other styles in my new work. For instance, a new song on BTTAM called Milk Goat, is almost completely different than anything I’ve ever done before. I wrote that as a children’s song for my three year old grandson.
I’ve been toying with fun new instruments such as the electric kazoo and the thumb piano to develop interesting sounds. My music is engineered using Mac and Linux based technology, primarily Logic Pro X and Audacity. I have a full studio of guitars and effects including a 2013 American made Fender Eric Clapton Strat, a 2017 Luna Acoustic Parlor Guitar, Yamaha Bass and a custom Electric Pearl/Alesis drum set.
4. What or who inspires you musically?
Led Zeppelin is my number one inspiration. I really admire how they took components of music completely out of their comfort zone such as reggae or country, and manipulated it to make it their own. I feel like this is very similar to what I try to do as well.
Although Uncharted Currents can easily be classified into instrumental rock, I feel like BTAM is more difficult to classify. I take elements of every sound I can find and refocus it into a rock format. Like Led Zeppelin, I like to think of my music as “open source” in the sense that nothing is off limits. From Beethoven to jazz, I am happy to include all styles in my work.
Other important artists who have been very important to me include Queen, Rush, Marc Bolan and T-Rex, Black Oak Arkansas, Uriah Heep, Iron Butterfly, Jimmy Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Boston, New York Dolls, Rolling Stones, and the Edgar Winter Group. Honestly the list could go on for ages!
5. If you could be stuck in a lift with any musician dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Bonham are the legendary performers of my time so meeting them would be an interesting experience. However, I can also see it as a double edged sword because I wouldn’t want reality to destroy my perception of them.
Probably around 1974 or 1975 I was able to attend Rush’s first American tour at Western Illinois University. I was able to sit on the stage (off to the left, out of sight) for a couple of songs before they had me get down. I still find it memorable that I got to be within 15 feet of Geddy Lee!
6. What advice would you give to other DIY musicians, especially those just starting out?
I don’t give advice because everyone is unique and has their own style of music. However I have been making music for almost 50 years so I will say just do what you love and don’t let anyone else make you feel like it has to sound a certain way. You are doing it for the joy and expression of yourself, not for anyone else.
Check out Jon’s website here – http://jonkukuk.net/
Consider yourself a DIY artist and would like to answer these questions? Get in touch!