Interview with Vavrek & John Holowach (Tryad)

Recently writer and critic Robert Nagle made a list of 11 Incredible Musicians You Can Download for Free . Many of the musicians on this top list make their music freely available on Jamendo, a free and legal music sharing site. Several musicians  appearing on this  list also gave interviews to this blog  (Read the other interviews).  You can also download a free sampler containing full songs from artists profiled here . listentryad

Tryad is an amazing musical group of people who never met until they produced an album. Listen, their second album is often ranked as the #1 most frequently listened to out of Jamendo’s 29,000 free albums. It is quiet, mysterious, unsettling, full of piano and strong rhythms, pauses, occasional crashes and silences (it’s labeled as “Industrial Classical Pop”).  Although it  includes a core group of  performers, most of the songs are built upon songs by  other Jamendo artists.   The results are  astonishing. Struttin’ is a kind of funky protest song about the music industry. Breathe is an intimate song  that poses a question to an imaginary lover. Alone is a meditation on solitude that almost seems … joyful. Lovely is an uplifting romantic ballad  that offers consolation to a sad individual  (“trees and galaxies/can’t you see/just like these/you are so lovely/how could you ever think you’re separate from everything”). Mesmerize takes a lovely song by Brad Sucks, embellishes it with piano and  gives the original melody a new meaning…and profundity. This is a powerful  song by Vavrek based on a piano melody by Antony Raijekov with a solemn rhythm.   The mysterious Waltz into the Moonlight uses  gentle tapping sounds to give the song a steady  momentum.

Vavrek provides a lot of vocals for Tryad. He  has released 3 solo albums on jamendo which are experimental, minimalist and low key. Vavrek has lots of musical ideas, and his voice sounds  like Elliot Smith during  the  ballads and like John Lennon during faster tunes  — especially in the wonderful song Peace on Earth (mp3). But Vavrek also borrows from a lot of other musicians and that is why the byline of his pieces are so varied:  Vavrek:: Alexander Blu or vavrek :: stouffi the stouves or vavrek::subatomicglue.   Vavrek resists making a traditional rock song with the hard rock rhythms (with Sunlight being about as pounding as it gets)  His songs are slim, odd and psychedelic (especially in Modern Life). In one fun song Celebrity , Vavrek pokes fun at a celebrity’s self-indulgence, while Alexander Blu’s funky musical accompaniment serve as a good counterpoint to the celebrity’s ego.

Here’s a video of Breathe, produced by band-member and videographer John Holowach. Holowach recently directed High, a documentary about marijuana. (Here’s another interview with John Holowach). Although John Holowach helped produce the Listen album, in fact, he no longer is an active member of  Tryad.

Because their music is creative commons, quite a number of videographers have used their music to make dreamscape-like videos. See for example this time lapse video that accompanies the song Trees and Galaxies. Despite the band’s arty roots, Andrew Varvek brings an energetic rhythm that keeps the music from being too cerebral.  Here is an email interview I did with  founding Tryad member Andrew Varvek and   John Holowach (who helped produce Listen but is no longer involved with  Tryad).


How did the Tryad project begin?

(Vavrek)  the tryad project began right around the inception of creative commons licenses.  Artists such as rjmarshall,  john holowach,  and myself (vavrek),  began listening to each other’s music through an open music catalog website called With inherent permission,  we began working with each others tracks, composing and collaborating.  it started small,  with three (thus ‘tryad’),  but grew in size rather quickly,  initially attracting two female vocalists.

i had been  very successful in the live Seattle music scene at the time,  but suffered a tragic break-up of my live band after our drummer’s wrists were seriously injured in a skateboarding accident. Once my local band disbanded,  I focused more online and upon tryad, ultimately inspired to help spawn our first album,  Public Domain.

tryad 2.Wow, the credits and acknowledgements for Listen seem to be like a who’s who of the CC Mixter/Creative Commmons world.  I only now realized that you sampled from Antony Raijekov and Brad Sucks and Ehma (and those were only the names I recognized!). Do you get the sense that the world of CC musicians is still small enough that “everybody knows each other”?

(Vavrek)  Largely,  yes. Funny enough,  we have been a bit rare in this world,  but this is changing fast. Some kind of freedom-loving geek musician quality combination is required,  and is certainly growing in strength.  Perhaps we’re everywhere.

John: It depends.  When we sampled from some artists, we used the CC license but didn’t necessarily do anything formal with them.  The beauty of the CC system is that people can just follow the licenses and not have to deal with the back-and-forth process.  That’s not a huge burden, mind you, but it’s a simple thing that can make a big difference.

3. Culturally speaking, is there a big gulf between the two camps of CC musicians and traditional musicians? Are their values and beliefs significantly different? Does their music sound different?

(Vavrek) This depends…  I’ve had a number of “conventional” musicians get very depressed after listening to my views,  like “they’ve lost ” but   just as many are  inspired and interested.  The reaction depends mainly upon how invested one is in a particular system or paradigm.

(Holowach) Trent Reznor, if I recall, has licensed some of his music under Creative Commons, so perhaps the gulf isn’t so wide after all.  I think both sides want the same thing: for their music to be heard, and hopefully to make a living off of it.  The former has become easier and easier as time and the internet have gone on, but the latter remains one of those perplexing mysteries that won’t be revealing her secrets anytime soon.  For now, it seems unlikely that a CC band can attain great fame, so it leaves just the music and the fans, and that’s satisfying in a different, perhaps more fulfilling way.

4.  Did you consciously make an effort to try to give all the tracks a “unified feel?”  How?

(Vavrek)  Conceptually,  yes.  i was very particular about how i wanted this album to sound.  i deliberately focused on piano pieces,  choosing piano and female vocals as a central focus for Listen. I also chose to make this album somewhat uplifting.  I wanted to highlight the ‘light’ in life.

(Holowach) I was producer for the two albums, so I was responsible for mixing on almost all tracks.  However it was definitely collaborative, as each track originated differently.  If you look through the credits of the album, different people contributed lyrics, music, and singing.  Here’s a little Tryad lore: since the band originated with myself, Vavrek, and rjmarshall, I came up with the name (three people being a “triad” of sorts) and the logo.  However, there were two different versions of the logo, which we voted on, so even that part was collaborative.  Thinking back, I can’t quite remember where all the decisions came from, but we got it done somehow, and I’m proud of our work.


5. How did you make decisions about the final product? Was it decision-by-committee or was one person responsible for the final artistic decisions?  Wouldn’t there be a lot of potential for the bruising of egos?  All creative collaborations have problems; do CC collaborations have problems which are unique?

(Vavrek) it was haphazard and chaotic collaboration,  yet honest,  driven,  and particular. Generally,  the creative process for Listen was without struggle… amazingly easy,  but required lots of time and energy. we were inspired, and   it was fun.

(Holowach) As producer, I was responsible for corralling everyone and everything together, including getting the album art and credits collated, and making sure everything ran smoothly.  I also contributed music, final mixing, and lyrics on several songs.

6. I know all your collaborators  come from different backgrounds. Can you talk about your individual  background and what you think your unique contribution to the album was?

(Vavrek): I’ve been putting my songs online for free since i began recording around 1995.  This web has matured with me,  my life,  and I’ve always freely given to as many as i can.  Music is a labor of love,  a love for all.

Many “altruistic” musicians still aren’t sharing their music with this world. Why?

(Holowach) That’s not a strict agree or disagree kind of statement for me.  Like I mentioned before, there isn’t a big gulf between the CC and non-CC groups, as I’ve straddled that precipice myself.  NIN jumped on the bandwagon, so maybe others?  Even Radiohead sort of released an album under a CC license (not really, but kind of).  Look through Magnatune and you’ll find music that runs the gamut.  There’s no pigeonholing CC musicians, anymore than any other kind of musical group, and it’s mostly counterproductive to try to do so.  People are still figuring out what works and what doesn’t, so the important thing is to keep trying and writing music.

8. Agree or disagree. The musicians who tend to go for creative  commons tend to make music which wouldn’t have been very commercial  anyway.

(Vavrek) Totally untrue.  I have no doubt of my own commercial viability.  Almost everyone around me has at one point begged me to “get a contract” and get on t.v., etc…  My choices have been deliberate,  for the good of all,  including myself.

saw a new world emerging… walked into it.

Vavrek “singing” his latest song “Calm Down”  (download mp3)

9. Listen  works perfectly on many levels; it is magical. But if you had to do something similar again, would you be more inclined to collaborate with people who live closer to you?

(Vavrek) No.  I’d be happy to work with anyone,  worldwide. I miss playing live and plan on doing much more of that… hopefully soon!

10. Some critics of CC licenses have said that noncommercial license are essentially useless because they prevent people who sample it from making any money. Have you ever thought of trying to release an album under the more generous Attribution-Share Alike license?

(Vavrek)  Our music is already released under  “the more generous attribution-share alike license”.  With credit,  free commercial uses of tryad music is allowed. It’s just another sustainable way to share love.

John you also do a lot of work in film/video. I understand why music gains a lot from sampling; it provides motifs and variations you can build upon.  Do you think there is just as much artistic potential for sampling in film/video?  How has creative commons material helped you in video projects?

(Holowach) Immensely.  I couldn’t have done my documentary, HIGH: The True Tale of American Marijuana, without the support of Creative Commons and public domain material that was available on the internet.  Beyond that, artists who licensed their music under CC were very generous in allowing me to go beyond their licenses so I could include it in the film.  I’m tremendously grateful to every one of them for that.

Listen was made several years ago. What kinds of things have you  been busy with since then?
(Holowach) As I mentioned, my documentary HIGH was picked up for distribution and is starting to build a nice bit of buzz after its release last November.  A few years after I left Tryad, I also moved from Ohio to Los Angeles, which was a drastic but necessary change.  I do still write music, mostly for myself, and am working steadily on building my future career in film.

(Vavrek). I’ve been been working on finishing up   my v3 album and also working on a third tryad album  called the tree.




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