“I find individual elements most interesting when taken out of their original context and re-interpreted through a fresh perspective.” — Stephen Chopek

SodaCan| Courtesy of Stephen Chopek

Apart from actor/conceptual artist/fiction writer/grad student James Franco, Stephen Chopek may be the busiest man in the art world today. Chopek (aka SodaCan), who lives and works as a musician and artist in Jersey City, is currently on tour with singer-songwriter Todd Carey; closer to home, the Broadway Gallery in Manhattan and LITM in Jersey City are currently showcasing his art in two group exhibitions. We recently caught up with Chopek to discuss SodaCan, his studio practice, and the business of being an artist and musician.

What is SodaCan?

SodaCan is a solo project, an artist collective, a multimedia extravaganza, an evolutionary experiment, a peace movement, a radical revolutionary uprising, a democracy, a dictatorship, a fascist theocracy, a socialist republic, an equal opportunity employer, an international corporation, a nonprofit organization, and a few other things not fit to print.

OK. Let’s narrow this down. What types of projects does SodaCan produce?

SodaCan produces music and art by Stephen Chopek. I occasionally collaborate with other musicians and artists, but mostly it’s all me … whatever I want it to be … when I want it to be … and where I want it to be.

The project was initiated after many years of playing other people’s music for a living, with only rarely embarking on my own projects. I started to get burnt out, and decided to take a step back and reassess my priorities. I took a year off from what I had been doing to focus on my personal interests. After that year I was refreshed and ready to get back to the business of music. Since then, I’ve been able to maintain a healthy balance of solo work and sideman work. As a result, I enjoy playing on other people’s gigs more than I ever. I’ve rekindled my fascination and dedication to the creative process.

Christening a project can be difficult. How did you come up with the name SodaCan, and what does it say about the type of work you make?

In 2007, after playing music professionally as a sideman for seven years, I began composing my own music. Around that time, I also started making visual art. I though it would be a good idea to present both under one name, but not my own. I was going for something more of a brand than a personal connection. It’s liberating to create things that my name is not directly attached to. However, it’s no secret that SodaCan is Stephen Chopek and vice versa.

I got the idea for the SodaCan name and logo from a friend’s T-shirt. It was a thrift store find, and had an image of what appeared to be the top of a soda can. So, like any aspiring artist would do, I stole it — the image, not the T-shirt.

The name doesn’t necessarily say anything about the type work I make, which is kind of the point; it’s ambiguous. The viewer or the listener can decide what it means.

Do you prefer to drink a beverage from an aluminum can with a pull-tab or stay-on-tab, and why?

I don’t drink soda or beer, so I’m not in a position to make an informed decision about the best way to drink out of an aluminum can.

Lately, I’ve been getting into coconut water. Most brands come in drink boxes with a pull-tab. That seems to be the way to go.

SodaCan "Night"

SodaCan "Day"

You have a show coming up in New York City. How did you become involved in the exhibition, The International Artists at Home and Abroad Exhibition Series, and what work will be on view?

Earlier this year, I viewed Bonnie Gloris’ art at the Brunswick Windows in Downtown Jersey City. I liked what I saw, and I sent her an email to let her know. Shortly after that, we were both showing work at LITM. In addition to being an artist, Bonnie is also a curator at the Broadway Gallery in New York City. She invited me to participate in their Nature Vs. Nature show in November. As a result, I was asked back for The International Artists at Home and Abroad Exhibition Series.

The work on view will be a diptych entitled Night & Day. This is part of a body of work made by applying paint to the glass of old windowpanes.

Networking sounds sleazy, but it’s not. It’s amazing how emailing an artist to share your admiration for a particular project can lead to other unforeseen opportunities. What else do you do to cultivate new relationships?

It’s important to get out there and meet the members of your community. In terms of the music and the art world, this means going to gallery openings, concerts, jam sessions, fundraisers, etc. Needless to say, the internet is a great way to network. Reaching out to fellow artists and musicians via email and social networking sites is a great way to stay connected. Find out what’s going on in and around town and check it out. Artists need to support each other.

What is the relationship between your paintings and your music?

My music and art are both created with the help of previously existing sources. I collect samples to make music and objects to make art. Some of the objects that I use are magazine photos, newspaper headlines, windowpanes, old paint, broken crayons, pen ink, plastic flowers, and bug carcasses.

I often collect things that I’m not sure what to do with. It may take a while, but they eventually find their way into an art piece.

Materials take up a lot of space. I work in my apartment. My space dictates the type of work I make – small, intimate, personal. Do you have a studio or specific space designated for your art and music?

I have a room in my apartment that serves many functions – recording studio, art studio, instrument storage. The room is not small, but sometimes it feels like the walls are closing in. It can get overwhelming, but I’m glad to have a space designated for creating. Depending on what I’m making, I may need to spread out into the living room and/or kitchen. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my works are small to medium size. I often wonder what kind of art I would be making if I space was not an issue.

Slayer + Public Enemy | Courtesy of Glen E. Friedman

I want to discuss some of your music. One of the pleasures I had while listening to your songs was the experience of trying to identify the sources of the various samples and soundbites. I still remember the initial glee I felt — and still feel — when I heard the Slayer “Angel of Death” sample in Public Enemy “She Watch Channel Zero.” Do you think about who your audience is? How do you expect viewers to respond to your work?

I don’t think of my audience when I’m composing music or making art. I do my best to not think of anything at all. I prefer to concentrate on the work at hand. I wouldn’t say my work is unfocused, but it’s not aimed in a specific direction for a specific audience.

I don’t place any expectation on my work or the people who view my work. There are no meanings, messages, emotions, or feelings that I’m trying to convey. I prefer to leave it up to the viewer or the listener to derive meaning from the work.

The final part of the creative process is sharing the completed work with the world. However it’s received once it’s out there is beyond my control.

I wish I had your mentality. One of the biggest challenges I find as an artist is getting caught up in my own head instead of making the work. Do you practice meditation or anything to help you get in the zone or are you just hardwired at this point to do the work?

In recent years, I’ve come to realize that passions come and go. The creative process requires devotion more than passion. The creative impulse is a gift that has been given to everyone — it’s our responsibility to foster and develop that gift. It requires a strong work ethic. We have a finite amount of time on earth and there are a finite number of hours in the day. Using our time wisely while we have it is the least we can do in exchange for this gift, and for the gift of life in general. Everyone has something to offer.

I practice Vipassana meditation on a daily basis. “Vipassana” is a Pali word derived from the Sanskrit language. It can be translated into English as “clear-seeing”, “clear-knowing”, or “insight.” The practice itself is one of the world’s most ancient meditation techniques, originally taught by Gautama Buddha. Vipassana mediation requires one to be equanimously aware of the present moment as it manifests itself in the breath and through bodily sensations.

Courtesy of the Rubin Museum

I am interested in learning about how you construct an audio piece. For example, on your song “Lord Protect My Child” on Sweet and Savory, what came first, the soundbite of the woman singing, the sitar clip, or the drumbeat you created?

Whenever I’m listening to music and I hear something that catches my attention, I make a sample of it. Through years, I’ve collected many sound clips of myself and other people playing their instruments. When I sit down to create a song, I begin by perusing my sample library.

With “Lord Protect My Child,” I began with creating the drum groove and matching it to the vocals. Then I found a bass sample and laid out the form. Once that was in place, I filled in the blanks with some percussion. There was plenty of space, which worked well for the song, but something was missing. It was at that point that I went through my CDs of Indian classical music and pieced together a few sitar solos.

Generally speaking, I make many versions of a song before I decide that it’s complete. It usually helps to make edits throughout the course of a few days. This way, I can get some distance and return with fresh perspective.

The piece that I’m currently working on is a bit of a departure from my first two albums. It’s about 30 minutes long and I play most of the instruments. My sister Claudia, who plays the violin and viola, is also featured. The only element of the song that I didn’t create is the vocal. It’s a sample taken from an astronaut reading the Bible. I’m also collaborating with a video artist to make a short film for the song. It will be released early in 2011.

How long have you lived in Jersey City, and what is it like to be an artist here? Has living in Jersey City influenced your decisions inside and outside the studio?

I’ve been living in Jersey City for about ten years. I was in the Heights for the first five, and I’ve been in the Journal Square for the past five. I have a music/art studio in my place that helps to maintain a reasonable cost of living.

There’s a healthy community of artists and galleries in Jersey City. There are also many musicians in town, but the live music scene is not very happening.

I’m not sure how much living in Jersey City has influenced my decisions. I would be making music and art in some capacity no matter where I lived.

What are the biggest challenges to a thriving music scene in Jersey City, and what can the community do to create one?

The biggest challenge to a thriving music scene in Jersey City is the lack of venues. I’m not sure what the reason is for this void; perhaps music clubs are not financially viable investments.

The community can take it upon itself to present shows in “alternative spaces” like galleries, vacant storefronts [and] private residences. However, the powers-that-be do not seem to be tolerant when people take the initiative to produce independent shows. I’m aware that the city has rules, laws, variances, zones, and requires permits for certain activities and events; but one should not have to consult with a lawyer if they want to throw a party. There needs to be a middle ground where the officials and the artists can meet amicably and productively. I’m not sure what it will take to get there, but it can’t happen without solidarity – within both sides and between both sides.

What artists should we be paying attention to in Jersey City?

I like what John Fathom is doing with his light boxes. Bonnie Gloris is always up to something new and interesting. I also appreciate how the Agitators Collective utilize and beautify public spaces. (I’m not just saying that because you’re a member of the group). I became aware of their work when I saw the decorated electrical boxes on Central Avenue in the Heights. It wasn’t until I saw their show at the 58 Gallery that I realized who was responsible for the project.

You have a diverse practice. You perform, tour, and record music on a regular basis, and make art. How do you find time to do it all?

Sleep deprivation. Don’t get me wrong … I love to sleep, but it often gets in the way. I don’t do drugs, but if I did it would be some sort of amphetamine. I could get a lot more done if I didn’t need to sleep. I often wonder how much more productive humans would be if we didn’t need to rest. Then I realize … we would probably accomplish twice as much, but live half as long.

I tend to take on more than I think I can handle, and then figure out a way to make everything happen. It keeps things interesting. I like to push myself and test my limits. I’m always up for a new challenge.

My workload is never a burden because I enjoy all the things that I do. The creative process never ceases to amaze me, and is a form of energy in and of itself.

Original post may be found here.

SodaCan logo


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