Q&A: The secret life of Ed Tupper
Outer Banks Milepost
From down the hall comes a synthetic hum of bleeps and beats. A siren’s call of vibrating vibraphones, haunting harps and other audible kilobytes. All leading from one plastic box to the next where a screen of colored bars and pretend amplifiers lets the composer do anything he chooses to a piece of music: write it, score it, record it, e-mail it.
Everything, that is, except maybe listen to it.
“None of this equipment makes any noise unless you plug it into the computer,” Ed Tupper explains, fiddling with his latest toy, a Guitar Hero axe turned Musical Instrument Digital Interface. “But once you do, they’ll pretty much make any sound you can think of.”
More importantly, they make any sound he can think of. Which is saying something, considering the 30-year-old Nags Head native’s instrumental chops. A former Berklee College of Music student, Tupper can throw down on guitar and piano but is best known for his stand-up bass.
For seven years, he’s held down the bottom end for a range of local outfits, from jazz quartets to country musicals to the Hound Dog Family Band, a popular pet project of local talents that draws howling crowds with their mix of 60s soul and hipster flair.
Little do they realize that when the lights dim, the same man who rocks 6-feet of wood and catgut sneaks home to curl up with his MacBook and write 30-second soundtracks for technical websites. Electronic creations that will reach thousands of ears — without ever leaving the confines of binary code.
MILEPOST: How does a Coquina Beach kid start playing stand-up bass?
ED TUPPER: Well, I took piano lessons as a kid. And I played saxophone in the school band. It was actually my teacher, Sam Ballard, who sold me a bass. That’s when I quit the band [laughs]. I always knew I wanted to play music, so somehow I talked my parents into letting me go to Berklee, but I only went for two years. I got so burned out I actually quit playing altogether. Then I moved back here in the summer of 2004 and started right back gigging with a bunch of different people. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
And scoring websites. Explain how that all started.
Well, any website has tons of videos. So they either buy stock music or they hire someone to write it. My brother works at Red Hat [a computer software company] in Raleigh and knew I was at the beach struggling. A couple years ago he said, “You should send some stuff.” So I did. Now he and a freelance filmer named Tim Kiernan keep me pretty busy. Sometimes it’s pretty loose. They call and say, “I need something upbeat or mellow,” And I have all these folders that are just little chunks of songs they can listen to. Others, they send me a piece of music — they seem to like Wes Anderson movies for some reason — and say, “I need something that sounds close to this.” Then it’s my job to write something similar. But not too similar. You want to make it your own, even if it’s for the weirdest technical video.
Is that where knowing music theory comes in handy? You can listen, change the right one or two notes and be done?
Mostly, I learn the song and play around with it. I usually don’t get too technical. I mean it’s good to learn that stuff. But then it’s also good to leave it floating in your subconscious. Otherwise, what comes out sounds mathematical, not musical. That’s what’s cool with the Hound Dogs is we don’t really practice; we just get up and play and it’s raw sounding. Not that practicing is bad [laughs]. You should practice a lot to learn your instrument.
How long does it take you to turn something around?
Sometimes it takes a couple hours. Sometimes a couple days. But in the offseason I’ll try to stock up so I have stuff ready to go right out of the gate. Last winter my goal was to start one song idea each day. So I built up this catalog of eight or 16 bar loops. Now I have this folder filled with hilarious file names I can choose from.
Sort of like the old joke about birth rates going up nine months after a blizzard. You were in here all winter making babies.
Yeah I was. You need something to do or you won’t come out the other side. Plus, my roommate was in Tahiti so I was just cracking out on the computer the whole time. But I like doing it. I’ll just make hip-hop beats for my buddies or record something. I mean, I’m a full tech nerd anyway.
So what happens when you’re done? Do you ever go online and see where the music ends up?
Not usually. A lot of it’s in-house videos for corporations. There’ll be some dude in a suit talking about shared dividends. Pretty weird. Sometimes I wonder what the Red Hat guys think. Do they picture me working 9 to 5 in some high-tech studio? Because I’m really laying in bed with my laptop and cell phone. I’ll send a song and fall asleep. Then they’ll send it back, and I’ll wake up and change it. We’ll do that for an hour or two. Or I’ll be across the street fishing, and my phone will ring. I’ll be like, “Yeah I can do that.” And I’ll run back to my house and edit real fast.
Is this how you pictured your life when you shipped off to college? Tapping away on a computer? Or did you think you’d come back and take your old band teacher’s job?
No way. Mr. Ballard’s the man. He takes 30 different kids who don’t know what they’re doing — who don’t even know what they want to play half the time — and teaches every single one to play an instrument and read music. I could never do that. Besides, he’s still down here, actually. I saw him on Channel 12 just the other day.
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