Interview between Robert Rich and Jeff Kowal
for the Ambient Navigator website, 2003.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your history? You started out in Psychology right? How did you evolve into the artist you are now?
A. The artist keeps changing with the person, I think. It’s a moving target. My interest in Psychology came from the same place as my interest in music and all these other little obsessions I have with the natural world. I was actually playing weird electronic music back in high school, long before I had decided to study psychology in college. Actually, when I started college, I thought I was going to go into physics. That was funny!
Q. Your finished work is often refered to and considered “audiophile” quality recordings. Can you tell us a bit about your studio set-up?
A. It’s a private studio with a decent mic collection, two old beige Mac G3s running CuBase (and an older Mac running ProTools), Mackie d8b mixer, analog and digital synths including a nice new modular synth (MOTM by Synthesis Technology), piano, etc. Probably the best gear in the studio are the speakers, a pair of Duntech Sovereigns that I got for mastering. I also get a lot of use from a customized pair of Millennia Origins (mic pre/EQ/compressor), which help me get a really good analog front end. If you want the full boring list you can find it on my website. These days I’m not using MIDI very much, mostly tracking audio direct into the computer or scratch tracks onto digital tape, then bouncing to hard disk for editing. For me, the main secret to getting a good sound is to take my time and pay careful attention to orchestration. I think ears are the most important gear of all.
Q. What are some influential artists or CDs that have mede an impression on you over the years?
A. Here are a few names from a really long list of people who influenced or inspired me: Robert Wyatt, Terry Riley, Talk Talk, Popol Vuh, Cluster, Hariprasad Churasia, Ali Akbar Khan, Sun Ra, Keith Jarrett, Wire, Arvo Part, Gong, Nico, Coltraine, Miles Davis … and many more!
Q. What are your feelings about how the ability to create music has changed for artists with the advent of affordable technology?
A. The modern digital studio has given us so much power to edit and modify a recording, that it teaches us a very important lesson: the energy within the music is more important than perfection. Because we now have the tools to modify every tiny unimportant detail of the music, we start to think that we should do that. But if we do, we remove the life from a performance. When I was just starting, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I could not afford multitrack tape machines or nice mixers, so I performed everything live, with very minimal equipment. Doing that, I was forced to define a meaningful approach for myself and create a statement somehow. Now that it is so easy and cheap to make electronic music, this lesson seems even more important. The substance in the music comes before everything else. The technology just gets in the way if you start thinking about it too much. Ironically, the technology has made it so easy for people to record and print CDs that they forget about the essential role that self-editing plays in the creation of really meaningful, lasting music. We’re getting a bit inundated with home recordings now. I love the empowerment that this technology provides — and I wouldn’t be anywhere without it, personally — but I don’t think that anyone is going to remember all this music in a few years’ time. There’s just so much stuff coming out, and the interesting music gets easily lost among the piles. I think my personal goal in the next few years will be to release fewer CDs and take even longer on them than I did in the past.
Q. You are well known for your sleep concerts back in the 80s and mid 90’s. Can you describe your intentions for these performances? How did you decide to incorporate the sleep cycle with music?
A. The joint interest in sleep and music grew from an interest in altered states of consciousness, the potentials for the mind to journey beyond traditional realms of thinking. I was still a teenager when the connection between music and trance started making sense, and I had not had the opportunity to explore some of the chemical routes to altered states. That’s a good thing, since I started to realize early on that nobody needs drugs to journey inward. The tools are built into our consciousness. I was already playing music when I entered college, and I played my first sleep concert in my freshman dormatory, before I decided to study psychology. Later, when I began to focus on sleep research, everything fell together nicely. It all came from a common interest in trance and altered states.I wanted to create an environment that fit together with hypnogogic experiences, and heightened the sense of space for the listeners. My favorite memory comes from a concert in Berkeley (California) in the mid-eighties. In the morning, people were starting to head home, while some were milling around the room quietly as I was starting to tear down my equipment. A woman returned to the room after having attempted to leave. She said, “I went outside to go to my car, but everything felt so loud I had to come back in. The music made me too sensitive to the outside noise.” I considered this a success, to sensitize a listener to the world around her. When we see our man-made world clearly for the first time, it often seems cold and angular compared to the natural world. Likewise, when we hear it clearly, we realize how harsh and loud our modern world has become. Perhaps, if we can learn to see more clearly the world that we have created for ourselves, we will strive to make it more suitable for our actual existence. If there is anything that this sort of quiet, slow music can provide besides mere sanctuary, perhaps it can invite us to pay closer attention to the world around us, just a little bit.
Q. What are your feelings about the modern music industry and it’s attitude towards independent musicians and exploritory or experimental music?
The music industry isn’t a homogeneous organism, so I don’t think it has a single attitude one way or the other…. nor do I think the music industry cares one bit about introspective music. It doesn’t make enough money! If it sold units, they would care. I like your word “exploritory” music. That’s a better word than “experimental”. It’s about exploring inwards. It’s hard to sell soft drinks, cars or blue jeans with Inwards Exploration, so it falls under the radar in our culture.I don’t make music with an awareness of a style or genre. If a listener responds – in a personal way – to my music, then perhaps that listener will hear the subtleties in it, the mysteries, the beauty. If someone doesn’t respond to it personally, then it might not interest them at all. Maybe it’s a bit like mysticism within a religious tradition – some people are attracted to it, most people are not, and nothing can force a person to become attracted to it. It’s a personal, experiential realm. I merely want to create something that I would want to listen to, something that fits my world.
Q. Something has manifested on “Bestiary” you refer to as “Glurp”. care to elaborate?
A. I’ve been pursuing Glurp since the beginning of time, I think. The word is just an outgrowth of my very strange sense of humour. It’s a shorthand for the biomorphic, squelchy, liquid underpinnings of life. Anything that gurgles reminds me that I’m a living puddle of salty goo crawling around on dry land, merely trying to procreate before I dessicate. In the case of “Bestiary”, the images of Miro and Tanguy gave me inspiration with their otherworldliness and uncompromising stylizations. I also wanted to make a very electronic album that felt extremely organic, like the inside of a body. It has a sense of humour, too, and the rhythms allow me to organize some very strange and funny sounds while helping it still sound like music.
Q. “Bestiary” is a breakthrough in what is perceived as “music”. Certainly it challenges the listener with genuine and original sound and textures? What’s next? Will you attempt to further develop this entity you have created, or will you move on to something completely different? What should fans expect from your next project?
A. I try to make everything I do sound different from the last. I suppose I just get bored easily. Actually, the album after “Bestiary” is “Outpost” with Ian Boddy, which came out in April ’02. It has a bit of a science-fiction feel to it, telling a story in a strange abstract way. Ian was a wonderful collaborator, a very fluent musician and a really great guy to hang out with. The CD has a slightly desolate mood, but that doesn’t reflect the very pleasant time we had together while working on it – part time here in California and part at his home in Durham, England. I’m currently working slowly on my next solo CD, to be called “Temple of the Invisible”. It’s a completely acoustic exploration this time, with a lot of harmonic series tunings, zithers, flutes and mallet instruments. Expect a sparse and quiet album. This one is taking a bit of time — I’m hoping for a release in mid-2003.