Hammering with Intent with Josh Rivera

Unsure about his future Josh was looking for direction. The handpan helped defined a new path and began to change his life. From player to tuner to maker, hear the remarkable transformation story of Josh Rivera as he unveils his new handpan brand to the public: Veritas Sound Sculpture.

Check out the Veritas Sound Sculpture Website or on YouTube and Instagram!

Podcast Transcription:

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is the handpan podcast.

Sylvain: This may seem like an odd introduction for this episode, but bear with me here. It will make sense. I want to talk about YouTube for a moment. If you've listened to this podcast at all, you've heard multiple mentions of YouTube as the way many of us discovered the handpan and developed a passion. YouTube was a new distribution model. Unlike traditional media like cable TV or radio, which need their content to appeal to a broad enough audience, YouTube allowed for anyone to share their art, however specific or niche it may be. The point is YouTube at first was not about financial viability. It was about the simple joy of creating. It gave people a voice and man, I mean, do you remember these early years on YouTube discovering and marveling at the Epic and hilarious and just overall remarkable things that everyday people do. Now, it's interesting to me that the beginning of YouTube coincided with the arrival of the Hang from PANArt. Obviously we know that YouTube largely contributed to catapult the Hong from a quiet local invention to a global phenomenon, but I think there's a deeper parallel here, maybe even a cultural shift, just like YouTube allowed for anyone to share their art unlike traditional media, the Hang allowed for anyone to create music and like traditional musical instruments. The result: we discovered hidden treasures that we would have otherwise missed. And these hidden treasures aren't events isolated in time either. No. They shape our lives. In a world of cause and effect. Some of these hidden treasures had an effect far exceeding their cause. Josh Rivera is a prime example of this and I am delighted to bring Josh back to the podcast to tell you more about his personal story and also to catch you up on what he's been up to recently. So here we go.

Sylvain: Josh, welcome back to the podcast.

Josh: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. Nice to hear you again.

Sylvain: Yeah, I know you're my first repeat guest on the show.

Josh: That's a huge honor on this episode, that's for sure.

Sylvain: Yeah, I feel like it's a celebration.

Josh: Yeah, it is. A lot has changed over the last year.

Sylvain: I know. And that's kind of what I want to ask you about because you've had a really busy year. So last year you and I did an episode called the art of blending. We talked about handpan tuning how artful and organic and just fascinating it is. But in that conversation we didn't actually get too much into your own story and that's kind of what I want to do today, sort of leading back up to this milestone, this big announcement that you have to make. But I think it's necessary to draw that picture to sort of build that backdrop before we can get there. Does that sound okay?

Josh: Yeah, yeah. No, that'd be great.

Sylvain: Yeah. So I know that you go way back and so I definitely do want to take some time to like talk about what you've been up to recently, but I thought, um, why don't you do a quick chronological timeline of your history with this instrument? How did it all begin?

Josh: Oh, uh, long story short would be a 2006. It was about when YouTube came out, I believe, maybe somewhere close to there, maybe 2004 or five at the earliest or so. And I was always a a percussionist in a world drummer. I was got really obsessed with a, actually when YouTube came out it got pretty obsessed with tabula and watching darbouka players from all over the world and just having my mind blown by what people are just doing in their homes that aren't these big famous people on stage that was just blow me away that the, I don't know, I'm just a person who can sit down and just like, this is what I do and I'm going to share it with you on YouTube. And it's some of the most amazing things I've ever seen. You know, outside this professional world of musicians, you're finding all these people that they just do this stuff every day in their own houses. And I was fascinated with it. So I got lost on YouTube for a lot hours, hours on the weeks. And, um, so then one day I was looking up tabla performances and came across a player that was playing the Hong Kong and the pan art Hang and I got incredibly lost as you can imagine. And went down the rabbit hole of trying to say, basically I am going to do whatever it takes to buy this instrument. It's just going to happen. I'm getting one today. And a lot of us know, especially especially like you and I being at the very beginning of this, we realized that that wasn't exactly so possible. Um, so by the time, you know, it took me, it totally took me about three days to even find out what the instrument was. Um, lots and lots of research. Later I finally found it and found the forum or the original forum, um, that was all about the hand pan and all his handpan enthusiasts. Um, at the time there was no handpan. It was just the Hang and so at the all these hung enthusiasts and I got directed towards Ron Kravitz, uh, through the forum and Ron Kravitz said his, he can't help me out. At that time, but he directed me to a gentleman in Canada and I sent him an email and he's gave me his email address and told him email and right away because he's going to be going to Bern too. Um, I apparently, I guess a panel that used to just open up, um, periodically to sell instruments, they'd have people out and it was like a big, um, almost, you know, just kind of like a big gathering, you know, people would show up and they'd get to pick their instruments. They would, jam, hang out was like the original hand pan gathering. Right? Yeah. And so he said he goes there to help, um, help out with the English speaking, uh, for the people that come out with, from around the world. And that if I emailed him right away I could maybe get on his list before he went. So I sent an email, told him I was incredibly interested. Uh, what would it take to, to get ahold of a, of a Hang and I kid you not? I had no, I had just sent the email, I clicked send and I got a phone call within maybe two minutes maybe, and it was so fast and it was him. And he just said, Hey, I am leaving for Bern next week. I have one spot left on my list. Um, I can bring back a handful of instruments to sell as a kind of a thank you for helping out. And I've got one spot on the list, so I need to know pretty much right now if you're serious about this and if so I need you to send as much money to Switzerland. And I'm sitting here just thinking, I was like, no, this has gotta be a scam. It's gotta be someone just sitting around waiting for some guy like me to come along, send an email, and then just get an easy check from this guy. Right. And, and I still would hit and did it like, uh, I was like, sure, okay, bye. You know, like whatever it takes. And so I wrote a check and I sent it off and I, well, I, I remember I turned around and looked at my wife and I was like, Oh, we've got to talk. I just committed to something that might be a little bit unorthodox, but, um, so yeah, I had gotten really lucky. I sent the check to Switzerland and three months later I got to pick the scale, um, which, you know, nowadays, and as you can imagine, I was at the very, very, very end of when they ship them out and getting to pick the scale that they were going to build for me was another, uh, another rarity. And so, um, yeah, I got to pick the scale. And so from the day I first saw the home to the time it was in my lap was actually about three months. And that was back in 2006. And so the way everything kind of fell fell into place. It was almost just like this natural progression that was kind of just. It felt like this was my, this is my new path, if you will. And everything from there, from the time that Hang showed up, I kind of feel like it kind of took over the rest of my life in a, in a really good way. You know, this, um, I had, I was kind of in the middle of life where there was a lot of directions trying to decide which direction I wanted to take for my future and what kind of things I to do and what kind of jobs I wanted to have or what was it gonna be. And I was kind of struggling actually, you know, there's like, we all go through that period, you know, we have those periods in life where you really want to have your purpose and your goal laid out for you in a way and not necessarily laid out for you, but you really want to know what that is and when you're trying to search that out and you can't find it, it's a really, it's a really difficult time. And, um, I was really, really just kinda confused and lost and it came along and the next thing you know, it changed my musical approach and understanding. Next thing you know, I was performing a lot with it. Next thing I knew I was traveling with it. And then next thing I know I was meeting all these people from around the world and it just kind of, it, it just kind of was that object that helped define a new path. And so, um, yeah, that's kind of my quick, short little story on how, what my history is with the Hang.

Sylvain: yeah. Yeah. What I, what I love is the transformation. I mean, there was a clear before and after and obviously it took, you know, 13 years between the time that you discovered the Hang and, and where you're at today. But, um, yeah, I mean, I, I love what you just shared that you, back then you didn't really have a clear sense of direction for your life and, and that this instrument has played a big role. Um, and it's been really neat to, to see that, um, solidify and sort of morph into, uh, what seems like from the outside your life's calling. I mean it seems like you were made to do what you're doing when you first discovered the Hang and then handpans. Did you know from day one that you would be tuning steel or, or would you have never imagined that that's the direction your life would take?

Josh: Oh, no, I, there's no way I would've ever, if from the first day I saw the Hang, you know, even the first day I played it, there was never an inkling that this would be something I would get into my, my, my dream. When I first got one, I was like, I want it to be pretty much like I wanted to be like David Cooperman. You know, I was like, I want to play really well, I want to practice and I want to perform and all that stuff. And um, yeah, in the end I just found out, well, Hey, I don't have the, I, I didn't have the degree of passion to practice like you need to. And I found that my, my, my joy on the, on the handpan was because I had studied tabla and I'd studied darbuka and I, you know, there's so many right ways to do it and so many wrong ways to do it. And when I first saw the home, um, it just felt like a completely blank clean slate for something that I didn't feel like I could do wrong or I could do right. And it was just something that just sounded amazing. I could just sit down and truly enjoy myself without having to thinking, you know, thinking to myself like, what would people say about it online? And I remember the very first YouTube video I ever posted. I mean, it's quite, I'm playing terribly on it really. I'm hitting it hard. It's blaring out at me. I mean, I'm doing all the wrong things, but, um, you know, I, that's, I had like what I, especially at that time, I didn't realize this could be a thing. I think I had like 30,000 views on that video and I was just like, what? And I look back at it now, I'm like, man, that was some really bad playing, but it didn't really matter because nobody knew any better. You know, it was just a really cool new instrument. And then if someone was just having fun and that's how all those videos were at the beginning was just, you know, it just, it was just a neat new experience and there was no judgment. It was just like, wow, that is amazing. And um, yeah, yeah, some simple, simple times, you know?

Sylvain: Yeah, definitely. And to a certain extent, I think that's how it should continue to be because we put these expectations and fears, comparisons. Yeah. And actually something that I often talk about, uh, mentioning you is that whenever we're at a gathering and you're performing, you're always improvising. And to me, one that's super refreshing because you play something that's totally unique and new. Second, it takes a lot of courage to, um, put yourself out there and, and to create in the moment. So all that to say that I just think that your history with the instrument is such a good, um, example. It's such a, you're such an ambassador for this art form. And, and I also love that, um, even though you've evolved into being a super human, um, you know, we can still relate to you because you're also a handpan player and, uh, you experienced the simple joy of creating. Um, so, and I, and I'm gonna build a little bit more suspense here before we get to the, the big announcement. But talk to me about the years with Mark at Saraz. Uh, does the volume kind of being thrown into this, this, um, company that is one of the world's best handpan, uh, makers, um, that produced a lot of handpans. So we went from total scarcity to having your hands on a lot of instruments. What was that like personally?

Josh: Oh, it's quite, it was quite intense as you can imagine. Um, I had started to learn to tune about maybe a year before I joined them. And so I had gotten to the point where, um, I was decently being able to, you know, control frequencies and, um, not struggling too hard to get notes in a tune, but, you know, it's still definitely very green, very new to the forum. And so when I joined Saraz, a market actually just hurt his back pretty badly. And so he has tuning was kind of out of commission to a point you can only do so much. And you know, there was altogether maybe five or six employees maybe at that time. Yeah, maybe even six or seven employees. And so, you know, as you can imagine, if tuning stops a lot stops in the whole company. And so when I jumped in, it was pretty much trial by fire. Um, I, you know, to get me warmed up, they created a chromatic set, which, uh, you know, Mark was always has. His dream was always to try to build his chromatic sets. And, um, so we are diving into that because there was an album being recorded, um, with EW. Harris out of New York. Uh, he was coming up to do this album, uh, which was a wonderful album. He's such a good, talented musician and writer. Um, and so we were creating this set for that album and, um, it gave me a chance to tune pretty much every note that they, um, that they did. And that's where I was created. And so I tuned all the notes, um, pretty much right off the bat. And, uh, and granted it was like before all this, you know, there was a build up to the job and I had, you know, he had had me out doing one of the festivals and, uh, let me spend, uh, was hangout USA and I spent maybe a couple of days afterwards spending time with him and just talking about tuning and talking about the whole company. Is that something I would be interested in? And of course, of course I was. And so he's said, why don't you come back in October and spend another week with me? We can do tunings, see how things go. And, um, after all that, you know, he was, he's like, you pretty much. You've got, you know, how to tune and you've got a job if you want it. And living in North Dakota, we're like, yeah, done. Let's move to Asheville from Carolina where it's beautiful and the weather's much, much nicer and a, I get to work with this awesome company and these great people. And um, so yeah, so it was, uh, it was really intense to move out the, to quit the job and have our whole family move out for this really interesting new medium, uh, where, you know, it's, it's not like going to become a doctor becomes something, you know, or, or any other job that seems much more traditional. This was a very outside the box kind of a thing to jump into. And so there's always that little bit of fear. And then, yeah, it was pretty much going into tuning for customers and, um, having people, you know, there's names on these instruments. This isn't just me sitting in my basement anymore, you know, hammering and there's actually a name on it and this is going to go to someone. And, um, so it was very, it was incredibly exciting and incredibly intense and I had lots and lots of meltdowns where I was just terrified or not being good enough, terrified at not. Uh, you know, like not learning enough to, to be better and all kinds of insecurities that come out of this. Um, but I think tuning steel in general is a very, uh, I think I said it in our last podcast, I feel like it's like into a mirror at all times. Um, it just, uh, reflects a lot where you're at when you're working in a steel, you know, if you start having emotional, if your emotions get too heavy, there's probably something going on you to step back from and the steel will let you know that really quickly. Um, and so there was a lot of change in the air. And then we kind of slowly but surely kind of fell into more of a, a normal, um, groove with each other. And then, um, yeah, it was just, I think, I think in that my entire time there I tuned, I don't know, uh, maybe around 300 shifty, about 350 instruments, um, in the course of about, uh, almost four years. And so, you know, and not, not, not, not, you know, a ton of time, but if I add up all the retunes as well with that, those four years, I mean, I pretty much, I feel like those four years were nothing but tuning. So just tuning in, tuning in, tuning. So, um, it was an incredible experience. I got to cut my teeth in a lot of different ways, um, through, you know, just developing, uh, the Saraz with Mark and then doing retunes on the side for other, for other builders and everything. It was this four years. It's four years of intense education.

Sylvain: Yeah. And so throughout that time, you continued to, uh, come to gathering during and to contribute in all sorts of really cool ways. Like you came up with a wax as a substitute for lubricants like seal 1, or frog lube that would have a tendency to dampen the sustain of instruments. And, and then parallel to that, you started your tuning business, Rivera still tuning. So I was that one more step towards sort of owning up that work and making it even more personal. Now. You were the name, you know the business that people were interacting with.

Josh: Yeah. Yeah. That's a, those it's kinda funny cause everything, all, all of the, Oh, like both of those things, the wax development and then Rivera steel tuning weren't anything that necessarily came out of long time, um, thoughts and aspirations as much as they were kind of just reactions. And so the, the wax came from the reaction of having, um, the, uh, a couple times where Saraz had gotten incredibly muffled and it didn't happen every single time. It would just, you know, sometimes it would happen and that was realized. It's like, well, I don't want it to ever happen. And, uh, once we kind of figured out that was what was going on, I just tried some things and um, tried different formulas and luckily it worked. And so the wax kind of was born out of a reaction to, you know, these negatives that I was seeing enough times when you, when you, when you oil that, you know, three instruments a week, three, four instruments that week, he starts to kind of, you know, you just kind of pick up on these differences. It would sound great. I had oil and nothing. Let's try something else and Rivera Steel Tuning was kind of a reaction as well to a market changes in, you know, the world growing, growing exponentially in the hand pan, building with different companies, able to so much mass produce these days. Um, it's kind of, you know, it gets really scary for a new builder or a, or even existing builders. It becomes a very scary thing. Um, it, you know, it's kind of threatening in a way. Uh, you start to kind of just get a little paranoid that how's this going to affect sales? Will I be, okay, will I still be able to put food on the table. And I had been doing so much retuning and I realized I really enjoy it. And so I decided to, um, if there's going to be this many hand pans in the world, um, there's gonna have to be people that know how to service them and you know, a luthier if you will for, for the hand pans. And, um, so I figured I'd go ahead and just put that out there and start having that as something that could help just keep a, keep myself on my toes. I think turn, tuning other people's stuff can be incredibly, incredibly, um, uh, eyeopening when you start seeing how many ways there are to get an instrument back into tune. And then in how many ways people build. And sometimes you see some of the, I've, well, I've seen some of the weirdest instruments that went dialed in can sound surprisingly nice. You know, you'll see this like really odd shape that you're not used to or these really odd ways of getting it. There are different kinds of steel and every once in awhile you're, I'm shocked at how nice it can sound. And so, um, it's uh, it always key and it keeps you thinking outside your own box and it's really easy. I think one of the hardest things about building is it's really easy to fall into a rabbit hole that you know, you, it's hard to tell if it's the direction you want to be going or if it's just the direction you're in and almost stuck in or not. And so I think doing retunes on other people's instruments and it's kind of helps keep that fresh and just kind of helps you always keep your focus on your ears more than, um, your experience per se. And, um, so yeah, both of those things kind of just, again, nothing I would have ever really thought, Oh, one day I'll be doing this. It was just kind of like, this seems to make sense right now. And um, and I'm really enjoying it, so I might as well just push it one step farther.

Sylvain: Yeah. So now we're here and that next step was for you to start making your own handpans.

Josh: Yeah.

Sylvain: So you just made the announcement at reminiscence, the Hampton gathering, the remarkable hand pin gathering that you and chef de David Galleher put together. It was an amazing time and you revealed to us that you had been working for five or six months really hard and building these amazing instruments which you brought, which I got to try. Um, and, and so here is this new chapter. So man, so first congrats. Um, tell me about the Veritas sound sculpture.