Anyone who listens to science fiction and fantasy podcasts will most likely have heard of John Anealio, co-host of The Functional Nerds. Still more will have heard his music—he’s responsible for the catchy SF Signal and Angry Robot intros, as well as Mur Lafferty’s “I Should Be Writing” theme song.
A devoted fan of genre fiction, Anealio brings a twist to his singing and songwriting, tapping into science fiction and fantasy for ideas. His latest album, Laser Zombie Robot Love, a collection of singles and remixes, includes his 2009 surprise hit “George R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch.” The title comes from a line in Neil Gaiman’s famed letter to a reader about Martin’s writing pace. “People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines,” Gaiman continued.
A song was born, Gaiman endorsed it, and Anealio’s website met with full capacity.
Anealio’s eclectic taste in music comes through in his songs. One moment there might be heavy metal undertones while the next, drum and bass. If trying to imagine this in your head, John tells you to think “John Mayer, Weezer and James Taylor playing Dungeons & Dragons together on their iPhones.”
Intrigued by his musical pluralism and involvement in the SFF community, I asked John to talk about his influences, how social media affects his projects, and how he goes about researching a song.
What makes science fiction and fantasy an interesting subject for you?
I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, so the idea of the hero’s journey is very powerful to me. So much of life is overcoming obstacles. Sci-fi and fantasy novels may have cool spaceships and creatures, but ultimately any great novel is about a character showing strength and completing their journey.
Most people who read science fiction and fantasy are aware of “fan fiction,” where a reader takes characters from a story, or the world in which a book is set, and creates his or her own version of things. Do you consider what you do a musical version of fan fiction?
I think some of my songs can definitely be considered fan fiction. In fact, my song “Empire State” was commissioned by Angry Robot books to be just that. I enjoy doing that, but I don’t really consider what I do to be fan fiction. I try to write interesting songs that will appeal to the sci-fi/fantasy/geek community. I try to approach these subjects from a point of view that just about anybody can relate to. I have a song called “Stormtrooper for Halloween.” Obviously, that’s a Star Wars reference, but the song tries to capture the feelings that I had as a kid dressing up for Halloween. If I just made sci-fi and fantasy references that had no relationship to how we feel as human beings, then there isn’t really much of a song there.
There are a number of musical influences at work in your songs—from progressive rock to electronic and many others in between. In your interview with SF Signal you said you went through various “phases” regarding what you listened to. What were some of those phases and what led you to them? How did some lead you to others?
My first musical love was 80’s metal. It’s easy to laugh at some of those bands now, but most of them had amazing guitarists. I was inspired to play the guitar because of the guitar solos that Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big), Vito Bratta (White Lion) & Reb Beach (Winger) played.
80’s metal led to instrumental guitarists like Joe Satriani & Steve Vai, which led to my love of progressive rock. I was (and still am) massively into Rush, Yes and King Crimson. This sense of musical adventure inspired me to study classical guitar and a bit of jazz in college.
While in college, I began singing in choir. This developed my singing voice and my confidence. Through my early years, I transitioned from hotshot guitarist to singer/songwriter. I discovered The Beatles for the first time and became obsessed with pop music like The Beach Boys, Crowded House, and Jellyfish.
Eventually, after my last band had fallen apart, I started performing solo gigs. I got interested in the folk tradition and really focused on developing a folk style of guitar playing that incorporated alternate guitar tunings and complex finger picking (which I had already picked up during my classical guitar studies).
Years of performing on the New Jersey coffee shop circuit eventually led to where I am today.
You’ve mentioned folk music twice now, how does folk music mesh with science fiction and fantasy?
I’m sure that a hard core folk music fan probably wouldn’t be into the fact that I sing about robots and vampires, but great folk songs usually tell great stories, and I’m just trying to tell stories with my songs.
I’m heavily influenced by a certain, sophisticated style of folk guitar playing that can be traced back to guys like Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broonzy. I was first exposed to it by modern, virtuoso players like Kelly Joe Phelps and Willy Porter. Basically, a solo, folk singer/songwriter is trying to have their guitar sound like more than one instrument when they perform live. In this style of playing, the guitarist fingerpicks, plucking a bass pattern with their thumb and playing melodies and chords with the rest of their fingers. It gives the impression of two or three different instruments playing. Couple that with your singing voice, and you become a one man band.
Since I’m a nerd for electronic music and because we both gravitate toward the experimental and abstract sort, I’m curious to know what you learned from a the genre as a whole and if there is one particular producer that stands out in your mind.
There was a time when I think that electronica was the most ground breaking musical art form. Artists like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin were just doing crazy things. It isn’t relaxing music at all, but if you really listen, it is simply amazing. It sounds like nothing that came before it.
There are two things that I take away from electronic music. First is the sounds. I love synthesizers. To my ears synths are just as expressive as any other instrument. I love incorporating synths into my songs. Second, is the use of ostinatos. An ostinato is a short, repetitive pattern of notes. Certain types of electronic music will set different ostinatos against each other, or have a single ostinato repeat while the chord progression or baseline changes underneath it. I just love the way that sounds and it is something that I incorporate into my own arrangements all of the time.
What kind of research goes into one of your songs?
If it’s a commission for a book, then I read the novel and do some research into the time period that the book is written in, if applicable. I’ll often take to Twitter to ask questions about a particular subject if I can’t find what I’m looking for through a Google search. I’m currently writing a song that references Thor and I needed to know if the Frost Giants ever attacked earth. My Twitter and Facebook friends got back to me right away. I find it is sometimes the quickest way to get answers to certain questions. It also helps to spark new ideas. It has the added benefit of involving the community that I’m a part of into the creative process. My experience with this, is that lots of people like to help and be creative in any way that they can.
What was a recent idea sparked by social media? What came of it?
Social media sparked the title of my new album, Laser Zombie Robot Love. Let me explain.
I didn’t have a solid title for my new album, so I thought it would be cool to have my friends on social media name it. Then I thought I’d go one better and have some of my author friends submit titles and then have everyone else vote on it. I was fortunate enough to get submissions from some great authors like Chuck Wendig, Mur Lafferty, Chris F. Holm, Paul S. Kemp, Robert Jackson Bennett, Matt Forbeck, Karin Lowachee, and Myke Cole. Before social media existed, doing something like this would have been impossible, now it’s a piece of cake.
Would you ever want to score a film? If so, which one and why?
Hell yes! Scoring film or TV is something that I’ve always wanted to do and something that I think I’d be good at. Quite honestly, one of the reasons that I started writing songs about sci-fi and fantasy is that I thought it might lead to a scoring gig. Nothing so far though. Anybody reading this need a composer for your film or TV show?
You teach music classes in a school as well. How do you get kids interested in music? What do they respond well to?
Kids respond best to a hands-on experience. No matter what concept I’m trying to teach them, I try to incorporate some sort of tactile experience; playing a hand drum, shaking an egg shaker, playing a xylophone, something. This generation also loves technology. Any time I can work some sort of app on my iPod Touch or a program on my laptop, I do.
Do you play them your robot songs?
No. I’m sure that some of my students would enjoy them, but I actually keep my teaching life and my performing life completely separate. I don’t think the parents of my students would appreciate the fact that their child’s music teacher’s most popular song is titled “George R.R. Martin Is Not Your Bitch.”
Laser Zombie Robot Love comes out September 18th. You can download it from his website www.johnanealio.com.