Interview by Christian Jacob
for Crystal Lake magazine in France,1992
(Only the answers have been transcribed here)
1) Working with Steve Roach
I feel that Steve and I have a very special working relationship. Our skills complement each other well, we respect each other’s ideas and music, and we have become close friends as well. We think and work very differently, but we move in similar directions. When we collaborate together we tend to work much faster than when I work alone. When solo, I tend to focus on microscopic details. I usually try to develop many structural layers in the music, both emotional and intellectual, usually with a lot of mathematics, classical references and alternate tunings; of course I also want the music to be intense and beautiful! When we work together we rely more on intuition. We go primarily for a powerful feeling in the music. Also, when together we can stress our individual strengths. I enjoy working with melodic and rhythmic counterpoint, organic sound-events and acoustic instruments, while Steve focuses on creating his huge slabs of sound, his harmonies, ambiences and heavy sounds. We often share roles, but we always try to leave room for each other’s “voice” to shine through.
Soma should make a good companion to Strata, but the two are very different. Soma is very heavy and rhythmic, more trance-inducing and more physical. The title comes from two classical references. The first appears in the Vedic writings of ancient India, which refer to a drink that allowed a seeker to commune with the gods. Historians don’t seem to agree about what the drink was made of, but it was probably hallucinogenic. The second reference comes from the Greek word for “body”. So I guess we’re back to the same old topic: sex and drugs, what else!
3) Ethnic Music
I like something that Lou Harrison once said, “All music is ethnic.” All music borrows from other music, whether or not the musician is aware of it, and all music comes from a mixture of cultures. There is no pure culture anywhere! It would be egotism for me to claim that I was creating a “new world music”, since all music fits that description. I have learned a great deal from non-European musical sources. I suppose that growing up in the San Francisco area has helped me, since I have been surrounded both by high-tech and ethnic diversity. If you think about it, California is a “Pacific Rim Culture”, we are probably closer to Japan than Europe, and there is a large Asian influence here. I think this is very good. I love diversity, and there is so much excellent music to explore. However it is also important to avoid another form of egotism, when we appropriate the art of another culture, take it out of context and call it our own. Much of the vitality of non-western music comes from its context – it often serves a specific function, whether magical or cultural. Our music serves different functions, usually as a product in a commercial system, or as some abstracted “work of art” believed to be separate from its immediate context. We must remember these differences when we hear the music of other cultures, and we must carefully consider what we are borrowing. Perhaps the allure of “ethnic” music comes from our own desire to regain the mythical/magical context which we imagine lives inside this music. If we take the music out of its context, we may be taking the shell but leaving the nut. We should probably be looking inward, not outward, to find this substance. Perhaps by learning from other cultures we might begin to heal our own.
About the instruments themselves: I think I use a lot of ethnic instruments because I like their elemental sound. Many western instruments sound a bit too refined at times. Also, electronics alone sound flat and lifeless to me. Acoustic instruments have much more complex harmonic structures than electronics. Another reason for using non-western instruments is tuning. I do not generally use the western equal-tempered scale, because it is fundamentally out of tune with the way we hear harmony. Many non-westen instruments are not locked into this westen tuning system, allowing me to explore alternate intonations.
4) Technical innovations and my gear:
I suppose I might differ from some electronic musicians in that new technology doesn’t drive my musical ideas – although it definitely affects my sound. Synthesizers and samplers are tools that help me explore sound, but I am still attracted more strongly to the expressive and chaotic possibilities of acoustic sound sources. Of course I love the possibilities of electronics, but I usually feel challenged to make them alive and “undateable” – I want my music to sound fresh and timeless 50 years from now. I like sampling, but I think samplers are best for making sounds that are completely new and unrecognizable – I am not much interested in preset (ROM-based) sample players. I suppose that I get the most excited about new effects devices. I love mangling acoustic sounds. Last year I bought an Eventide H3000, which is a great shredder of sound. My recent big expense? – a pair of really good Neumann microphones!
Here is my main studio setup these days: Macintosh computer, Otari 8-track and Soundcraft mixer, Yamaha DX7II and TX81Z, Ensoniq EPS16+, Korg Wavestation, Sequential Prophet 5 and SixTrack, Casio CZ101, Lexicon reverbs, Eventide H3000, delays and other procesors, steel guitar, bamboo and clay flutes, percussion, etc. etc.
5) Computer vs. live
I usually put a timecode stripe on the mulitrack, record live instruments onto the tape and sync the sequencer to tape for additional electronic tracks. In my mind, there is no huge difference between the computer and tape. Sometimes I compose entirely planned music, note by note in a sequencer. Other times I perform an improvisation into the computer or onto tape. Sometimes I edit a tape track just as radically as I edit a sequencer track. In the studio, nothing needs to be what it seems! Why should it be? The studio itself is an instrument.
6) Improvisation and writing
For me, improvisation and writing are inseparable. The studio gives me the ability to build a composition from an improvisation. In concert, I love to improvise, and I prefer not to play the same thing twice. Improvisation is a form of composition; you are simply composing as you play!
7) short vs. long pieces
I do approach my short pieces differently from long ones. In my early recordings, I was interested almost entirely in creating an altered state of consciousness in the listener. The time scale of the music was very elongated – I treated time in a very specific way, trying to make an hour of music pass by like minutes, derailing the mind from its usual thought process. My shorter pieces use more traditional structures. I would like people to be able to listen to albums like Gaudí or Rainforest at a number of levels. The songs contain enough structure and activity (I hope) to maintain interest at a conscious level, while hopefully the albums as a whole create the same trance-like effect, if that’s what the listener wants.
8) commercial difficulties.
Well, yes, it’s definitely easier to release albums with short, active pieces than ones with extended drones. In some ways it has to do with the audience – not many people showed interest in my more experimental music. People will always make experimental art, but it will probably never be a huge commercial success if it truly challenges people’s assumptions or threatens the status quo. This doesn’t depress me; instead, it poses a challenge. My Sleep Concerts were in fact an attempt to meet this challenge. I wanted to find a way to get people to listen to very slow music without dragging along all their expectations about what “music” should be. Instead of forcing them to listen to something they might find boring at first, I framed the music in such a strange context that people didn’t know what to expect. There was a sense of newness and adventure that made people look forward to having an unusual experience. I stopped performing Sleep Concerts primarily for logistical and personal reasons – I couldn’t find many really good places to do them, and they were too exhausting to perform.
9) My next solo project
It might be a while until I do another solo album, as the band Amoeba is taking a lot of my energy right now. I do have some ideas, but they may change. I want to do a very watery atmospheric album, something very “acoustic” but very abstract, floating and sparse. Imagine the second half of Numena with more of an Indonesian quality.
10) The Band
The band is called Amoeba. We are playing dark, loud, surreal music. Right now we are working hard on our first album, and we hope to start performing locally in late Autumn. I am not sure I can compare Amoeba to many other bands, but I’ll try… imagine something between late ’70s Ralph Records (Tuxedomoon, Snakefinger, Residents, Fred Frith), old Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Wire, and, well… me. It’s got all my trademark glurp and squish along with vocals and a dose of grunge. The bandmembers are all old friends of mine: Andrew McGowan on bass, Matt Isaacson on drums, Dave Hahn on guitar. I’m doing vocals, steel guitar, synths and production. I played with Andrew ten years ago in a band called Urdu – he also played bass on the first track of Rainforest. Matt and Andrew both used to work at Sequential Circuits. Matt has designed the software for many well known digital synths and samplers. Dave is currently getting his doctorate in early Rennaissance lute music at Stanford. He is quite sick of that, though… luckily he is also a very good guitarist.
11) The “California” scene?
Well, if we do have a consistent sound, I’m probably too close to it to tell you what it is. We all owe a lot to early ’70’s German space music, of course, but perhaps we tend to incorporate more acoustic instruments, and some of us try to avoid the analog sequencer clichés. The differences between “the California sound” and “the Euro sound” probably come from the results of all the other influences mixed in and digested after a decade of developement. We all process our influences through different filters. Perhaps the American filter differs somewhat from the European? I don’t know. Speaking personally, my own influences cover everything from Indonesian, African and Indian music to the American avante garde and sound constructionists (John Cage, Marianne Amocher, Pauline Oliveros, etc), Minimalists (especially Riley, Reich and Alvin Lucier) and Industrial music. I can’t speak for the others, but I know Steve Roach was strongly influenced by his trips to Australia, Micheal Stearns by his work with film…then of course there’s Constance Demby who says she was influenced by visitors from outer space! Well, as you can see I really don’t know whether or not we have a trademark sound – each one of us perhaps has our trademark, and listeners might lump all of our different trademarks together into one category.