Bottom-Up Creativity vs. Top-Down


In my years of creative / business work, I’ve noticed there are two broad “techniques” to use while building a project. Bottom-Up and Top-Down.

This concept is nothing new, and the last thing I want to do here is spread more “I like making things and stuff” pseudo-philosophical fun-corporate nerdy blogger bullshit.

So here’s how I’ve seen it work…

Bottom-Up: Collecting a number of concrete objects / colors / shapes / sounds / words (usually at random) and sticking them together — maybe (but rarely) hoping they end up meaning something (or at least being somehow enjoyable as a whole). Example… Mike Patton’s Adult Themes for Voice. As Wikipedia describes it: Shouting, screaming, clapping, squeaking, and moaning.

Top-Down: Starting with a GOAL, such as “compose, record, and deliver the film score for The Empire Strikes Back.”

Consider how much more discipline it requires to begin with the large concept / container, and then design each individual piece to serve the greater purpose. Every part in the machine must work, everything must be appropriate! While there is a time for experimentation along the way (would it have more impact during this scene to bring in the strings, or should we use only the piano, or should we leave stark silence?), there is no room for “messing around” a.k.a. musical masturbation.

Conversely, I have seen creators who get trapped in Top-Down Mode. I’ve had video production clients who will provide me with a specific script, and then not allow “creative wiggle room” for organic serendipity during the production process. The plan in their head is more important than the “magic” that can be generated by an injection of some Bottom-Up from the actors and editors. And their project suffers.

I would be stumbling into Rationalism (in the Objectivist terminology) if I were to claim that these are two processes that can actually be 100% separated. I’m also not going to claim one process is superior to the other, but that they should ideally intertwine. Each serves its own purpose in creation.

Of course, I thought incoherent noises released as “albums” were great — at 20 years old, when I was looking for ways to use up my excess young-person energy. But as I get older I crave something else. Something more impressive and deserving of respect — like the live musical theater production of Wicked. It’s complex: the composition, performance, actors, sound, lights, set designs, props, story all work together. In other words, they are Integrated. (Thanks, Schlegel.)

But I will end this by saying… that to exclusively glorify Bottom-Up is a cop-out, because it requires no conceptual work — and conceptual work is the most difficult.


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I Am Millard Nullings From Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children (Sort Of)

Millard Nullings

True story. I went to high school with Ransom Riggs, author of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. We were both in horrible (I mean charming) garage rock bands in Venice, Florida — and at one point, I played drums on a studio recording for his band of awkward, gifted friends called Dinner With Hern Burford. Below is the only photographic evidence I have of my brush with fame and fortune:

I Hate Florida

On the right is Ransom with his guitar, and I’m the blurry drummer in the background with an “I Hate Florida” T-shirt. (My grandfather Carl Millard had just passed away a day or so before that, so I really didn’t want to be there that day. I hid behind a floppy hat and sunglasses.)

So, the question is: did Ransom name Millard Nullings after me? Well, my middle name is Millard (thus the Sir Millard Mulch musical pseudonym), and I had been going by that name full-time for three or four years. I heard an unconfirmed rumor that there was another Millard on the scene during those days, but I doubt it.

You can buy the #1 best-selling Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children on Amazon and decide for yourself.

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Jon Schnepp: “Flip It!”

Hats, Popeye’s Receipts, and the Secret Art of “Flipping It.” from Carl King on Vimeo.

Here’s the first clip from the “So You’re A Creative Genius… Now What?” Book Release / Panel Discussion @ Writer’s Store, June 11, 2011. Guests: Jon Schnepp (Director / Producer of Metalocalypse), Andy Alt (Online Marketing Director for Steve Vai, COO of GuitarTV), Eman Laerton (Creator of You Have Had Taste In Music), and Anders Mouridsen (Los Angeles Session Musician (John Fogerty Band, Faith Evans). Hosted by Carl King (Sir Millard Mulch, Dr. Zoltan Øbelisk).

To read the book, visit:

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Morgan Ågren Email Interview

[This is the article that led me to make Morgan Ågren’s Conundrum: A Percussive Misadventure.]

You can talk about technique and precision all day, but Morgan is above and beyond all of that — and he didn’t skip it, he ascended through it. But he never got stuck in the tools, never forgot his own artistic vision. Drums are now just a toy for him, and he makes them do whatever he wants. He’s an artist first, a musician second, and a drummer third. The way it should be.

He played on a couple of my records, and I hadn’t talked to him in years. In fact, I’ve never met him in person, because he lives in Sweden. So I decided to do this email interview. Some of the questions were submitted by my Facebook friends. His answers were edited only very slightly for grammar and punctuation — but I tried to preserve his authentic style of typing in English, which is not his first language.

Conducted through email. Enjoy!


Q: What is the current state of things?

A: Chopping wood here! Got tons of trees delivered to my house. Chainsaw and then axe, the old way! Other than that… did a record and a gig with Bill Laswell last year. CD will be out in a few months under the name BLIXT. Just did a gig with Trey Gunn too (of King Crimson). We recorded a CD also, with Henry Kaiser on guitar. This will also be released sometime later this year I hope!

Q: How are you and Mats doing?

A: We have been re-issuing some CDs. Touring a bit. And will make a new CD soon. No live gigs now. We have a break sort of, for live events anyways. 

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: My new project BATTERIE DELUXE! That is the project that has been in my mind on and off for more then 10 years. This is what I will start next. I also record more and more for other people. Did a CD for Phil Elter (French bassist). Also a CD with KINGS OF BELGIUM, that will be pretty cool. A new recording with KAIPA will be done in a few months, as well as with PEELGREEMS (French “pop-project”.) That’s about it. And yes, I scored #1 in Modern Drummers last readers poll. That was funny! 

Q: How did you develop your poly-rhythmic style? From what I understand you kinda kicked off Meshuggah’s rhythmic bent… (Submitted by Matthew Superego Hill)

A: I don’t think much when I play, what is polyrhythmic or not. I just hear things in my mind that I want to play. Jazz drummer Elvin Jones had his way of playing what you can call polyrhythmic, even though in a much more free way. Vinnie Colaiuta plays some nice things on Zappa’s “Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar” that was really musically fitting, and probably polyrhythmic. As for Meshuggah, their music I found 20 years later, and they are great, but the word polyrhythmic is something else, I think.Technically speaking, they often play 5/8 7/8 type of signatures on top of 4/4 beats. 

Q: I’ve heard Morgan saying that he prefers playing music rather than playing drums, so I wonder. When I can read on their Cd’s that half the M/M stuff is written by Morgan, how much time does he spend playing ‘tonal’ instruments? (Submitted by Yavar Askari)

A: It is odd maybe, but I never play drums if there is not a recording, rehearsal or a concert. All my time goes to composing, mixing and emailing about dates gigs, etc. When I compose I mainly use keyboards. Besides that, I spend a lot of time working on sounds, plug-ins and microphones and stuff like that. But from when I was 5 years old and until I was 20, I played drums almost every day. 

Q: What does your practice routine look like? (Submitted by Jordan Willocks)

A: As said above, I played many hours between age 5-20, but now I never practice drums. It is not what I need, really. I want to create magical music, not speed or technique on the drums. It is a bit odd even for myself when I think about it, but I can say that since I was 20 years old until now (being 43 now) – the total amount of hours just practicing plain drums during these 23 years is less then 20 hours. But, I did spend time recording, touring, etc., so I played a lot still.

Q: How did you develop your snare technique? Particularly your rolls, they’re inhuman. (Submitted by Clay Dickenson)

A: Haha, I think the touch and feel makes it all. You might enjoy a guy playing slower then the guy playing faster cause of the way it sounds. The feel is the thing. There is drummers that can play much faster then me anyways.

Q: When can we see Mats / Morgan in California? (Submitted by Mike Stone)
A: I might do some clinics in LA later this year or next. Drumchannel and maybe PIT, stuff like that. And I wanted to see if we could do a gig with Trey Gunn and Henry Kaiser then also, while being there, if our CD will be done. Baked Potato maybe, good idea?

Q: What music, art, literature, films, etc, etc are you into these days, Morgan? (Submitted by Daniel Dahlqvist)

A: For music, recently, I found some very nice details on Radiohead’s last album. Jaga Jazzist has a few things on their last CD that I like too. At home I never listen to music that takes too much space. There is too much noise and activity in the house already with kids and family, so there I put on Chet Baker or something just to add a nice atmosphere. I would never put on a CD with my own music or something alike at home, haha… In my car, I can put on anything. Literature… sorry, can hardly read… Well, I can, but I read too little. I wish I did more, but music eats up most of my free time. Films, yes, me and my wife watch a lot. The last one that I really remember was “Lemming” with Charlotte Gainsbourg. Quite special movie, great! 

Q: Dweezil Zappa said “if Morgan lived in the US, he would be huge.” What do you feel is the advantage to staying located in Sweden as opposed to being a working musician in the US? (Submitted by Douglas Showalter)

A: If I would be looking for session gigs and tours with popular acts, then the US would be much better than Sweden. But when doing my own music with my own projects, I can live anywhere. My family is here, and Sweden is a pretty safe and cool place… in some ways, anyway. So I never felt I needed to move. If Frank wouldn’t have passed away at the time, and if he would be up for it, to play with me and Mats, which he actually was, then we would have moved to the US of course. But in fact, Zappa also told me personally, after he quit touring, that he thought it would be better for me to stay in Sweden and come to the US for worthwhile projects only. But Frank did not like the US that much either! Although I can add that today, in my mind at least, I WOULD probably say yes to Lady Gaga or a gig like that. There is popular stuff that is not too bad either. But again, I won’t leave my family with my 8-year-old son and be on the road for months.

Q: What about the Scandinavian area and musicians inspires you the most? (Submitted by Douglas Showalter)

A: There is a lot of good musicians here, yes, but not very many exciting bands maybe. My brother Jimmy is doing fantastic stuff I must say. Check out his latest CD called “Various Phobias.” Check out Simon Steensland too. Katzen Kapell have done nice things, and Meshuggah, of course. There might be a few more…

Q: Who are your drumming influences? (Submitted by Dominick Poisson)

A: Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Narada, Bozzio (70-80 period) Gary Husband, Shannon Jackson, Christian Vander, etc. But I also like Bernard Purdie, Bonham, Bruford. Even drummers very different from the guys above, like Jeff Porcaro, he did things that I think were great.

Q: Who are your composition influences? (Submitted by Dominick Poisson)

A: Oh.. lot’s, I can enjoy everything from Tom Waits to AC/DC to Captain Beefheart and Magma, to Radiohead, to Stravinsky.

Q: How do you feel about drummers stealing other drummer’s concepts and selling them as their own? (Submitted by Rafael Collado)

A: Well you can steal some but then make your own version of it. Everyone does that. AND you can steal from your self, which isn’t that bad, haha!

Q: Do you know of some young drummer(s) right now who could push the envelope further than the Donati-Minnemann-Royster-Lang-Djordjevic-Kilson-Ägren superdrummers’ bunch? (Submitted by Dominick Poisson)

A: I think that if you take a ride on Youtube you get a picture. But I must say that, even if there was a guy playing twice as fast and twice as long and strong as all the guys on this list, it won’t necessarily mean anything to me. Even if they would also twirl their sticks with their dick (haha). What gets everyone’s attention can also be other features. Speed and technique has a bit of a dead end there, too. There will always be a faster guy coming next. I personally prefer new styles and new personalities more than just another even faster guy. Nothing bad in playing fast though. I think I am known to play quite fast myself sometimes. But I can get totally restless watching these performances on Youtube. It is great and funny to see, and Youtube is a totally fantastic source of information. But I like when someone is aiming for a new and own unique thing. That lasts longer also.

Q: Your left and right hand sound very matched and even, is this balance between your hands something that has come naturally, or is it the result of a certain practice/method? (Submitted by Georgio Mediacurtain)

A: It is funny, cause I write with my left hand, but don’t play drums left handed. The only thing I can do with the left hand is to write, besides playing drums. But if I throw something, play tennis etc, it is always my right hand. If I would throw something with my left hand, it goes any direction, it’s like that. And I can’t really change and play hi-hat with my left, and snare with my right, and get it to sound even close to the other way. I did not practice this either. I learned how to play by imitating the drummers that I like. When I was ten years old, I got totally into Buddy Rich. So I tried to play like him for some years, and that gave me a good basic technique without realizing it. That “balance” comes from there I think.

Q: Frank Zappa said there was no difference between Art and Entertainment. Do you agree with him? What do you think about so much “Music” being judged by visuals and “showmanship?” Dancing, lights, crowd reaction. Personally, I consider Mats / Morgan to be Artists and a band like Dream Theater to be Entertainers. The biggest thing is that they seem so concerned with their fans and what people think, and their merchandising / brand / logo and selling hats, rather than just doing whatever they want. How do you feel about that issue? 

A: I see a difference between art and entertainment, sure, but I think they can be combined too. We all have to survive also. When I was a teenager I could almost look at musicians who played with popular artists as a disgrace. Thinking they where not true to music, selling out their souls :-) And most of all, I was wondering why these musicians didn’t even seem to care about what kind of music they played. But now, some 20 years later I realize that one has to make a living, too. And when having a family, all changes even more. I mean if my son Alvin is really wanting to get the latest Harry Potter Lego, for about $100, I want to be able to buy it for him of course. When it comes to things like that, I will do things that I would normally not do. Easy. But I still struggle sometimes, to make a steady good living. It is not very easy doing this. So I teach some. And I record for people, etc. It is often about being able to afford spending time making the music you really love, even if that music is not what gives you income.But I use to say this; I am very rich when it comes to experiences. And that is worth a lot also!

Q: Anything else you want to say to the world?

A: Go for your own thing. Find out who you are, and explore that musically! And yes, buy my albums so that I can continue doing music :-)

Visit Morgan:

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Craig Anton Interview

Craig Anton Interview

Craig Anton is an actor and comedian in Los Angeles, CA. If you look around, you’ll find his named attached to The Office, The Sarah Silverman Program, Tom Goes To The Mayor, Phil of the Future, Boston Legal, The King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Allie McBeal, Lizzie McGuire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, MADtv, Mr. Show, and a late night variety show in Hollywood called The Tomorrow Show, which he co-hosted with Brendon Small and Ron Lynch for 5 years. That’s a lot of heavy keywords to live up to.

At the time of this interview (September 2009), I contacted five other creative career candidates with questions. None of the others came through with Craig’s thoughtful tenacity. Most didn’t come through at all. And that sets us up for the first interview question.

Read The Interview!

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Justin Bieber Is A Shit Bomb That Exploded In The Air And Splashed On Everyone

Thank you, field correspondent Augustus Larch. And now, for a very important and personal message about the reader’s creative career:

I know. You finish a creative project… then it’s the obligatory hurricane of WordPress Blogs and Facebook Pages and Domains and YouTube clips and Tweets and Tumblr accounts and Advertisements Pretending To Be Informative Articles and Apps and Mailing Lists and automatically Feeding this to that and PLEASE TELL EVERYONE TO CLICK ON MY LINK AND REPOST EVERYWHERE and then POOF! you’re gone again.

I’ve watched this happen over and over — not only because I’ve been paid to do it, but also because I’ve done it for my own projects a zillion times. All of this spamming and self-marketing doesn’t work.

It’s because people are interested in other people.

It’s a primal thing. We pay attention to things that are alive. Things that move and change, grow over time, have flaws. Authentic things we can interact with.

Look at Kevin Smith. He doesn’t disappear for two years when he doesn’t have something to sell you. The guy never stops. His entire life is his creative career. Even if it’s just him and his friends farting into a microphone, he’s generating content. He can’t help it. If he’s talking, he’s making stuff that people will pay attention to. And it has absolutely nothing to do with whatever movie he’s making at the time. It’s just that sense of, “I wanna hang out with that guy. He’s cool!”

When I go to an event like NAMM, it’s not hard to spot the posers. They’re the ones who still pretend to be that one product they made twenty years ago. You can see them TRYING to be boring. Avoiding doing anything in The Now. Terrified that anyone will see through their rock star Halloween costume.

(And then there are the copycat posers who wish they were the real posers. Wearing sunglasses indoors, paying a company to build a single custom guitar for them and calling it their Signature Series, hiring a friend to pretend to be their guitar tech. Hmm!)

When you meet the real deal, like David Hayter, it’s obvious why he got the job. I’ve also watched probably 20 of Augustus Larch’s YouTube videos, because I think he’s dangerous and funny — and what an impressive voiceover actor that guy could be, if he didn’t live in an attic the middle of nowhere.

Too often, the process of encapsulating oneself in an inanimate object is a process of sterilization. That doesn’t make strong art, it just makes more dead things on a broken hard drive in a landfill.

In an era when we pretend not to have bodies, hide behind weird screen names, and can’t get an actual human on the phone (“we’re sorry, that is not a valid option, goodbye”), the most valuable thing is organic experience. Media is a way to connect, not to disconnect.

My advice: You, yourself, have to be more interesting than the products you honk about.

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