You could say that in middle school, Ethan Parsonage was already a wheeler dealer. When the student council hired him to DJ a middle-school dance — with a CD player and one turntable — Parsonage did some research to find out the going rate for waxslingers: $350. He used the money to start what would become a vastly impressive record collection. It was an auspicious beginning.
Today, Parsonage's records probably number in the thousands. Most of them are stacked in the recording studio of the small North Oakland flat he shares with his brother Noah. They include everything from straight-ahead jazz to reggae, classic soul, hip-hop breaks, and Spyro Gyra. They fill one entire wall of a room that's otherwise jammed with instruments and recording equipment: drum sets, a Korg Polysix synthesizer, an MPC, a Fisher Price tape recorder, a Fender Jaguar guitar, and several electric basses.
Like many hip-hop producers, Parsonage, 34, considers himself a musician first and foremost. He grew up playing in school bands, cut class to practice, attended Berklee College of Music, and cofounded the band Crown City Rockers back in 1997. His primary instrument is bass, but he started making beats early on, too, using a four-track and DS-8 sampler. To consolidate his producer identity, Parsonage took on the stage name Headnodic. He's released a whole spate of albums under that moniker, the latest of which, Red Line Radio, dropped last week.
What makes this album interesting is its aesthetic coherence, despite the fact that each track has a different featured guest. Parsonage tends to prefer live instruments wherever possible, so most tracks sound like they're being performed by a full band, rather than a guy manipulating sounds on ProTools. In all, the album is about evenly divided between live and sample-driven music, Parsonage said. "I try to blur the line of which is which," he added.
And he does it pretty effectively. The title track, for instance, features rock drums and a bass line that sound like they were recorded in Parsonage's bedroom, but they're actually filched from some old record that he couldn't remember offhand. "The Mondays," which features Kat 010 on Fender Rhodes, is a much more synthetic-sounding track, probably because of its linear programmed drumbeat. Same goes for "Mr. Incomplete," which includes a sizable Jazz Mafia horn section, slotted between a canned synthesizer and drums. Many of the songs incorporate live beats by Crown City drummer Max MacVeety, who Parsonage often records during soundchecks. (Parsonage says he might embed a two-bar MacVeety drum fill in a song that's otherwise dominated by digital percussion). The only way to tell what's live and what's not is to read the liner notes.
That's part of what distinguishes Ethan Parsonage's style, but it also aligns him with other producers in the Bay Area who see themselves as bandleaders. J. Boogie, for instance, helms a band called Dubtronic Science, which often uses live percussion and a full horn section. Mark Farina, who began as a house DJ but, with the series of Mushroom Jazz records he released on Om, identifies as both a turntablist and an acid-jazz artist. Parsonage differs from his peers in the sense that he did start out as an instrumentalist before gravitating to the pastiche style of hip-hop. "I'm probably the most fluent with musical language on a bass," he confessed. "But I spend more time producing, and gig out more as a DJ nowadays."
In truth, he was never the type to settle wholeheartedly on one thing. The son of a singer and a painter — his mother's artwork covers the walls of his living room — Parsonage dabbled in many different media as a kid. For a while, he wanted to be a filmmaker. "We made movies in the backyard using Claymation," he explained. "There's not much to do in rural Wisconsin." He played in school bands, garage outfits, jazz camps, talent shows, and even a cover group that toured the local bar circuit. Parsonage's English teacher was the singer, and his first bass teacher played guitar.
At present, Parsonage says he divides his time between turntables, beatmaking, and bass — he toured with rock group Persephone's Bees last year and still holds down the rhythm section for Crown City. But production appears to be his main focus, at least in his solo career. Red Line Radio is a fairly comprehensive album in the sense that it includes all of Parsonage's favorite collaborators: Lateef and Gift of Gab from the Mighty Underdogs; Moe Pope and Raashan Ahmad from Crown City; rap duo People Under the Stairs; emcees Sadat X, The Grouch, and Aima the Dreamer; Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia horn section.
Since it costs so much to produce an album of this magnitude, Parsonage made the bulk of it on handshake deals; he traded beats and studio time, and allowed his guests to choose their own tracks from his giant cache of homemade beats — many of which will never see the light of day. "And I'm okay with that," Parsonage said, noting that there's always a new project on the horizon.