Chapell the Band: Making Music Through a Legal Lens

Chapell the Band: Making Music Through a Legal Lens

Written by John Seetoo

A clichéd admonishment that practically every musician has heard during their developmental years is “don’t give up your day job.” The odds for most aspiring musicians to be able to earn a successful living with their music are slim, just like in many other creative arts. Most heed the advice of that old cliché. However, others stubbornly refuse, and either reach success or crash and burn. Some, like Alan Chapell, find a way to do both.

With his band Chapell, Alan Chapell has released several albums and has attained an impressive degree of critical acclaim, commercial success, and respect from his musical peers. Concurrently, he is also a highly-regarded privacy rights attorney who is on the cutting edge of dealing with the current threats posed by digital technology. He’s even had a character created for HBO’s Silicon Valley cable TV series based on his attorney/musician dichotomy. His upcoming album, The Underground Music Show, will be released in March 2024.

Alan Chapell spoke with John Seetoo for Copper on these and other topics.

John Seetoo: As a tech industry privacy rights attorney, does your “day job” inform the lyrical content of your music at all, or do you keep those aspects separate, and why?

Alan Chapell: Thanks for the questions, John.

I lived in India for a bit, and when I came back I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I was always drawn to privacy and other human rights issues, and thought it might be fun to study human rights law at Fordham in New York City. It took me a few years out of law school to start to figure things out, but I eventually gravitated to [specializing in] privacy issues in the tech space.

I wasn’t doing nearly as much with my music during that time, but I didn’t get out of it entirely. When time permitted, I’d sit in with other friend’s bands – usually on keys or backing vocals.

I see my writing as a reflection of life, and that includes my work in privacy and tech. I went pretty heavily into the impact of tech dystopia in my fourth album PENULTIMATE (e.g., the song “Ride”), and then there are occasional references in other songs. My first album, The Redhead’s Allegations, had a song called “Heroes that talks about the impact of climate change. My third album, Love in the Summer of Trouble, has “Waiting,” about gun violence. My fifth album – Cinco – has [a song called] “Spin” that talks about how cable news can warp people’s minds. I’m currently working on a song called “America” that explores what happens when two groups of people continue to talk over each other.

Overall, I try to bring the same creative energy to my work in tech as I do in my music.


JS: Given your field of expertise in the tech sector, what are your opinions about AI and its potential uses as well as abuses in music? Can you explain your perspective on how you think you could use it as a helpful tool and what safeguards you think should be instituted to prevent copyright infringement and other kinds of problems.

AC: We’ve already reached the point where AI is disrupting copyright law. I remember reading somewhere recently that a handful of artists were suing a gallery for taking their art and making AI-enhanced derivatives of that artwork available for sale. We’re almost certainly going to see more and more of that in music. And the [recent] labor disputes in the film/TV space have as much to do with AI and digital rights as anything.

Eventually, someone is going to make millions by asking AI to “write a love song as if it was written by Taylor Swift and John Lennon.” But I don’t think we’re there yet. Personally, I’ve played around with AI tools a bit. They are interesting if you have a phrase in your head and you want to understand whether it’s really unique (i.e., do any other songs contain this phrase). But as of today, AI is closer to a modern version of Auto-Tune. It’s an interesting tool that some will use as a gimmick and others will eventually use in a way that’s more artistic and that opens the door to even more creativity.

Also, the closer we get to perfectly-polished music for the masses, the more that other listeners will want to experience the imperfections and raw jagged edges of music. I’m betting my musical career on that latter group.



Alan Chapell at the Belly Up Tavern, San Diego, California, opening for the Gin Blossoms. Courtesy of Maria Downing.


JS: As an independent musician, you certainly understand the reliance that musicians have on digital distribution, merchandising and marketing to earn a living with their art. How do you reconcile that with being an attorney for privacy rights, where one’s mouse clicks are sending very detailed metadata disclosures of their personal preferences and even more revealing and potentially compromising info? Is there a middle ground?

AC: The changes in the music industry over the past 25 years haven’t been helpful to independent musicians, but it’s not like the good old days were really all that great. What’s changed is that power is concentrated a bit differently and the way that musicians can actually make money has shifted. Getting to 10 million plays of your songs isn’t going to directly make you much money, but the notoriety that comes with those 10 million plays will hopefully allow you to generate revenues in other ways. Is that more fair or less fair than, say, back in the 1990s? I think that depends upon who you ask.

As a musician, what gets me frustrated about digital distribution is that I’m completely dependent on the mechanics of platform algorithms like those run by Spotify and Apple Music. If the platform algorithm doesn’t like my latest single, I’m almost entirely out of gas as an artist. And I have no understanding of how the algorithms work, whether the algorithms are being manipulated by the platforms via some form of digital payola, or if the numbers of plays are even accurate. And the platforms – often citing privacy rights – don’t give artists much in the way of data about who is listening. Yeah, they give us scraps of data – but I’ll bet you that Spotify has a much better understanding of who is listening to my music than I do.

Here's wishing that one could just buy the algorithm a bag of weed like any other gatekeeper from back in the good old days, but I digress… 

JS: You said you lived in India for a period of time. Did that experience influence any of your music or have an impact on your outlook towards tech? If so, please explain.

AC: I lived in Mumbai back in the 1990s, having joined an east-west fusion band named Kalki. At the time, I was really interested in weaving classical Indian instruments and themes into more traditional Western rock. That experience taught me to draw from different cultural experiences in order to create something completely new. We never really got off the ground with Kalki, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. For one thing, my time in India was my first experience with yoga and meditation. I couldn’t imagine my life without them [now].

JS: You’ve worked with Jerry Harrison (of the Modern Lovers, Talking Heads, and a producer and solo artist). How did that come about, how did you define your roles, and will you collaborate again?

AC: I grew up in Connecticut and got to know Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from Talking Heads pretty well. They used to come out to listen to my band when I was in college. I adored their work as musicians, but I was also really into some of the work Chris and Tina were doing as music producers. We kept in touch over the years. And back in 2010, I had a bunch of songs I was really excited about and was looking for some production help. So, I reached out to Chris, who in turn introduced me to Jerry Harrison. Jerry and I really hit it off both creatively and personally. Jerry helped me put together a band of mostly Bay Area musicians (Jerry’s studio was in Sausalito).

Jerry has become a bit of a mentor for me – both in music and life. Both Jerry and [producer] ET Thorngren emphasized the importance of having a strong process for recording. And it all started with the quality of musicians you play with – particularly if you’re a solo artist in need of a band.

I still see Jerry every time we’re in the same city and he’s a great sounding board for new ideas. I’ve enlisted ET to mix a bunch of my albums since The Redhead’s Allegations. They also happen to be two of my favorite people.


JS: Did I read correctly that HBO’s Silicon Valley created a character that was allegedly based on you? Can you tell me about that?

AC: Funny story. I was at the airport and my flight was delayed for a couple of hours. So I went to the airport bar to grab dinner while I waited for my flight to take off. At the airport bar, I struck up a conversion with someone who turned out to be a producer and creative consultant for the show Silicon Valley. He was also a musician. We started talking about music and Silicon Valley – and over the course of a few beers, we came up with the idea of having the Pied Piper gang go through a very big privacy scandal. You may remember, there was a very funny scene discussing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in Silicon Valley season 4, episode 2.

Anyway, the idea was to have them call their big shot privacy counsel because they needed some answers and advice really quickly. They call their privacy guy, and he picks up the phone just as he was sound checking on some big stage. And [the character] Dinesh is trying to tell him what’s going on with Pied Piper, but the privacy guy can barely hear over the din of his sound check. And the privacy guy keeps being interrupted by issues with his band. (The guitarist won’t leave his dressing room because someone ate his pepperoni and anchovy pizza, and the guitarist literally wants to line up the crew and smell their breath for the anchovies so as to catch the pizza thief.) Anyway, after a few minutes, Dinesh asks what they should do. And the privacy guy simply tells Dinesh that they are completely fu*ked – and hangs up. End of scene.

Anyway, the [show’s producers] decided to go in a different direction. I think the fact that Pied Piper’s attorney featured a guitar in his office made them fear that they might be accused of repeating themselves.



Chapell in concert with Lorenza Ponce (electric violin) and Ali Culotta (keyboards). Courtesy of M. Deneher.


JS: I understand that you deployed a unique process by which you recorded your vocals in Sausalito, California while at the same time your band in Brooklyn performed the music. Can you explain the process, the technology that pulled it off, and how you arranged the communication feeds and audio in the respective studios?

AC: I live mostly in New York City with my wife and baby daughter. My daughter was an infant – maybe two months old when the COVID lockdowns first started. We were suddenly feeling a bit trapped in our New York apartment. We wanted to be out in the wilderness a bit more, so [we] decided to head out to the houseboat community of Sausalito.

I had first lived in the houseboats when I was recording my album with Jerry Harrison. So during the pandemic, we ended up living out there for almost two years. Nobody was really touring back then, so I started writing and ultimately had about 30 songs to record for The Underground Music Show. But I had one problem. My band was in New York City and I was committed to living in Sausalito for a while. So my friend Tim Hatfield (a fantastic producer/engineer who I’ve worked with for years) suggested we try this product called AudioMovers. Using that tool, we had my band rehearse in Tim’s studio, so they were all in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And I was in Sausalito and would send in my vocal and keyboard tracks in advance and the band would play to those tracks.

Recording this way allowed me to hear what my band was playing in near-real-time and provide feedback. It’s a big change from recording with them in the same room – and there are definitely pros and cons. When you’re singing along with the band in the studio, you’re able to feed off of the band. But you’re also focusing more on your individual performance and less on the band’s collective performance. By recording without being in the room and without performing, I wasn’t focusing on singing. Rather, I was really listening to the rest of the band, and was able to function more as a producer of the tracks.

JS: What, if any changes, overdubs or re-recording of the songs afterwards was needed, or did the tracks all meet with your approval? If any further production work was required, can you please give examples and why?

AC: I have the best band in all of New York City. Rodney Howard (drums), Malcolm Gold (bass), Ann Klein (guitar) and Lorenza Ponce (violin) are all spectacular musicians in their own right. What I really love about each of them is their willingness to explore with me – to reinvent themselves with each new album. Take Lorenza – on one song, she might be doing more of a traditional violin part. One the next song, she’s doing something closer to an 80s lead synth part using a whole host of pedals. And we’ve also used violin to bring in a series of sound effects, rhythm patterns and all kinds of ambient drones. It’s a gift that gives us the ability to bring something new to almost every song.

The band recorded all of the basic tracks at a studio in Brooklyn. And I was really pleased with how they turned out. I’m a huge fan of getting a live feel with the basic tracks. We also did a fair amount of overdubs and general experimentation as we were trying to bring the songs to life. I worked with SoundBetter, a tool that lets you collaborate with people from just about anywhere. It’s really helpful, but during the COVID pandemic, that type of tool was essential. It allowed me to open up creatively and experiment with a whole bunch of different vocalists and guitar players. Meanwhile, I reworked the keyboard parts, taking stems (individual musical elements of the final mix) from the recording sessions and putting them into GarageBand so I could play around with a bunch of different synth or electric piano ideas. I also experimented and re-sang the vocal parts a bunch of times. I use the WA-251 tube condenser mic from Warm Audio that I really dig and lets me record from wherever I’m living.

JS: Where and how did you mix the record? Can you please walk us through the signal flow, equipment used, and any special gear or effects that made appearances?

AC: I worked primarily with a guy named Josh Gold at the Basement studio in Massachusetts. We’re doing some of the initial work virtually and I’ll be out there for final mixes.

I asked Engineer Josh and he said, “I mixed these 100 percent in the box in Pro Tools. The vocal chain [went through] mostly Waves EQs and the Renaissance R-Comp compressor and R-Vox processor. Plus, some parallel Slate Digital and Soundtoys [plugins] for compression and effects. I supplemented the kick [drum] with a Slate trigger, which I love and use in some way on almost every track. Nothing too crazy! Mostly EQ, compression, reverb and delay.”

JS: As an indie artist who has experience in professional studios (an increasing minority), what is your criteria for auditioning a prospective new studio under consideration for a future project? Are there must-have pieces of gear or layout requirements and are there particular recordings that you like to use as audio references?

AC: At home, I use KEF LS50 speakers powered by Cambridge Audio [electronics]. I really try to keep in mind that a good deal of people don’t have a perfect audio setup. So when I’m mixing, I try to listen via a good set of speakers, but also rely on my MacBook air and a set of mid-level headphones. The song needs to work within all of those environments. I always felt that the [really expensive studio monitor] speakers you find in most studios can be a trap.

I’m not much of a gearhead in the studio. Fortunately, I’ve worked with people like Tim Hatfield and ET Thorngren over the years – and they really know what works.

But for me, it’s really about vibe. I typically try to pull my band out of New York City to record. That way, you get everyone together for a few days to a week and create more of a communal feeling. If everyone gets to go home every night after the session, then the outside world gets to creep in and people start to lose focus. I also really enjoy being with all of these people – I learn something new about everyone each time we record together.

We did a couple of sessions at the Power Station New England in Connecticut. And we also did a session in Woodstock, NY at Dreamland. I really dig Dreamland because they have rooms for the band to stay at night – and so you’re literally all together in the same building, being creative for a week’s time. Sort of a band summer camp vibe.


JS: As someone with dual careers, you are part of a musician club that includes Jeff Baxter (Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers/Department of Defense consultant), Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull/salmon farm owner), Steve Morse (The Dregs/Deep Purple/airline pilot), Brian May (Queen/astrophysicist), and Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins/wrestling club owner/promoter). Do you get a sense of fulfillment from both law and music? Are they similar and/or different, and in what ways?

AC: I used to be much more reluctant to talk about my tech/privacy work when hanging out with other musicians. One of the things I noticed about Jerry Harrison is that he’s just as savvy a businessman and entrepreneur as he is a musician. Watching Jerry really changed my point of view – that being able to navigate both worlds can be an asset. Jerry and I have even collaborated a bit on the business front as we both advise a biotech company called Ophirex – the company has discovered a universal antidote to venomous snake bites. As someone who’s spent time in India and seen the impact of snake bites on poor, rural families, I’m really excited about the potential impact of this company to make people’s lives better.


Header image courtesy of Shervin Lainez.

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