with Todd Zachritz, June 29, 1993
Since I started playing music when I was pretty young, I have to go a bit into my childhood to answer this. I was surrounded by music as a kid – my father played jazz guitar (still does) and, even then, I loved the spacier more atmospheric textures music could make, especially Gregorian chants and the German psychedelic scene. Almost more than music, I was fascinated by certain sounds. I used to listen to ventilator shafts for hours. Every springtime the frogs nearby would croak, and I would listen to their polyrhythms all night long. I think their rhythms still dominate my music. For much of my childhood I thought I wanted to be a painter, as I would literally hallucinate complete liquid worlds when trancing out to my favorite sounds. After lots of frustrated attempts at graphic arts, I ended up just making the sorts of sounds that helped me visualize my private landscapes. Other than my voice, synthesizers were actually my first instruments. I started building them from kits when I was 13 or 14, hoping someday to play space music. I also used to improvise for hours on piano, but never took lessons.
2) What inspires you to create your music? And what other artists do you enjoy?
Many different things inspire me, but only recently have I come to understand the common thread through all of my work. I think my chief inspiration comes from my ongoing amazement at being alive, being part of this complex web of existence, the squishing primordial soup we call Earth. For many years I have used a word – glurp – to describe those sounds which remind me of my internal world of squishing wet stuff. Now I see this word glurp in the context of the magical process of organic life, and all its associations.
My list of favorite artists is probably too long to print. There is probably something that I like from every musical category, but not everything from any one category. Anyone who seems touched with that “spark” of psychedelic intensity, anyone who knows intuitively that music is a form of magic. Mostly I listen to non-western music, especially Indian classical (favorites include Ali Akbar Khan and Hariprasad Churasia), African pop music (Sunny Ade, Youssour N’dour), Arabic and Persian music (One of my favorite musicians of all time is Hamza el Din), Indonesian Gamelan and others. My favorite western “serious” music includes Terry Riley, Arvo PSrt, Bach, and Bartok. Some of my favorite western “pop music” includes Robyn Hitchcock, Talk Talk, XTC, Wire, Legendary Pink Dots. My favorite jazz includes Coltrain, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Chicago Art Ensemble, Miles Davis. Of course the early industrial/art-rock scene had a huge influence on me – TuxedoMoon, the Residents, Cabaret Voltaire, and most of all Throbbing Gristle. (I skipped my high-school graduation in 1981 to see what turned out to be their farewell concert – a peak experience for me!!). Some of my favorite newer artists include Jeff Greinke, Hafler Trio, Zoviet France, Paul Schutze, Alio Die, and many others.
3) How do you respond when you are referred to as a “new age” artist? Surely this must be annoying, since so much of the “new age” scene seems so bland and mundane.
The term is meaningless anyway, so why waste time fighting it? It’s a shame that these categories might prevent someone into industrial or rave stuff from listening to my albums. I must admit that even I feel a bit embarrassed thumbing through the new age section in a record store – definitely un-hip! But I think the term is pretty much dead now – at least I hope so. Most of the knowledgeable audience realizes that there is a lot of cross-pollination among all the different so-called genres. I don’t see any big borders between ambient-industrial (like Hafler or PGR), the electronic/world music scene (like Jon Hassel, myself, Steve Roach, Jorge Reyes etc.), and the techno-ambient music (like Orb). All these categories are just constructs, conveniences that help us communicate. Some are useful, some – like the term “new age” – are a pain in the ass!
4) Describe the evolution of your music (from your early tape releases to your current projects) in your own terms.
Well, I started out making pure sound textures. I would create slowly shifting, static slow-motion sound environments that I let run all night long. At the same time I was playing in various improvising industrial noise groups, which generally never went anywhere (this was the late ’70’s, and there wasn’t much interest in that kind of stuff) Around 1981, I got the idea to play concerts for sleeping audiences, as a way to introduce my static music to a more receptive audience. These Sleep Concerts lasted all night long, from 11 PM to 8 AM. The audiences brought pillows and sleeping bags and slept while I stayed up performing my long drones. My first several tapes came out during this period, and they reflected condensed versions of this slow-motion music. My first tape Sunyata had a continuous 40 minute drone piece on side 2, which was a typical duration for me at the time.
Over the next few years I began working with alternate tuning systems, in particular, a system called just intonation, which is based on divisions of the harmonic series. While I expected that my growing interest in microtonality would make my music even less commercial than it already was, it actually had an ironic contrary effect. The microtonal stuff led me into the music of other cultures, and I discovered a fondness for melody and rhythm that I never had with western music – primarily because I never really liked the way western music treats harmony and rhythm. As I mentioned before, I prefer the rhythms of the frogs, the interlocking cycles of simultaneous rhythms. I began to think in terms of a music where all the elements – rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, etc. – related to each other mathematically through harmonic ratios. As a side effect of all this study, my music got more active, more melodic, more song-like.
My music is still growing in terms of these melodic structures, and it seems to be getting more complex and multi-layered. But these days I am moving away from the more composed, mathematical direction of the late 80’s and trying primarily to define “glurp”. My music seems to get wetter and squishier every year, but I’m afraid that if I succeed in completely perfecting the sound of glurp, the music will vanish completely into a big gurgling protoplasm.
Well, I guess Amoeba is my big gurgling protoplasm! Actually, Amoeba is my band, although I suppose it’s always been more of a solo project. You see, although I love the quiet instrumental stuff, I sort- of miss my early days of noisy industrial weirdness. I’ve always liked weird pop music, and figured it was time to do something about it. Amoeba is basically a name that I’ve started to use for all the music that doesn’t fit the image I’ve established as a solo artist, even though Amoeba’s music is definitely a natural outgrowth of my twisted mind. The first Amoeba CD – a 5-song single – is mostly manic noisy pop music. The experiments that you put on your compilation show another side to the project – quieter, darker, less pop oriented. After I finish a few solo projects this year I hope to record a full-length Amoeba CD, which I think will be somewhere in between the two extremes. Still pretty psychotic, with vocals, but much more introspective.
To be honest, I haven’t sought out film work because I would rather make music that stands on its own, visually speaking. The problem with film music is that it always has to be subservient to the image. Basically, you have a director, a producer, and a hundred middle-men breathing down your neck, trying to make you sound like someone else. Of course if somebody came to me with an offer I’d probably say yes.
If there is a visual quality in my music, it comes from the fact that I’m a fairly visual-minded person. I often “see” my music as a big gestalt before I turn it into sound. I want to create an evocative landscape with sound, to surround the listener and remove the walls of the room. I want listeners to paint their own mental pictures.
7) Do you feel that your appearance on the Dry Lungs 4 compilation has brought you to a new audience? Or has that audience always been there?
As I’ve mentioned, I have always felt a kinship with industrial and noise music. I don’t know if that is apparent in my own music, but I have always had an audience among people into much noisier music than my own. Maybe Dry Lungs expanded that audience a bit, I don’t know. I think the reason for the crossover audience is that my music always has shadows, even the lighter, more melodic stuff. I think that if something is to be truly beautiful, it must contain elements both light and dark. It must contain reflections of our own death. Maybe my music differs from some of the noise music in that I also reflect love and light in my music – I think it takes both sides to create a complete statement.
8) Is there a certain feeling or atmosphere you strive for in your music?
Wet! I love the sounds that remind me of the gurgling primordial swamp! Of course, my music isn’t always pure glurp. In general, though, I like a more organic feel. I don’t like the pure tick-tock of machine rhythms. I like subtlety, silences, openness and a breathing quality to the sound, even if the instrumentation happens to be electronic.
9) When you compose, is a lot of it very thought out or planned, or do you sometimes improvise and let the music take control?
Both. Often I start with an image for a piece, a mental picture of the overall effect of the music. I then improvise until I find what I am looking for. Then I tend to tweak until it has taken shape into something I can let other people hear.
In either case, the music is always in control! Whenever we imagine that we control the music, it runs away from us like a wild animal afraid of being caught. Music is bigger than we are. Music is a powerful magick that I respect immensely.
10) Do you still build (or modify) your own synthesizers? What other instrumentation will listeners find in your music?
Music technology has reached a point where it’s cheaper to buy the stuff than build it, plus my need for good sound quality has surpassed my ability to build the electronics. Oddly enough, though, I feel that I am continuing to move away from synthesizers as my main instrument. I prefer the expressiveness of acoustic or electro-acoustic instruments. As a result, I am making a lot of my own primitive instruments – flutes, percussion, pieces of metal. I also play lap steel guitar in some pretty unusual ways, and a bit of fretless bass. Many of the sounds that I hear in my head simply can’t be made with traditional instruments, though. Synths aren’t expressive enough, and classical western instruments are too “clean” sounding. I like a particular quality I call gruzziness, a sort of modulated, low frequency distortion that makes certain sounds interesting and intense. There is a piece on your compilation using resonant feedback with a sheet of steel, which is a pretty good example of what I mean.
11) Please describe your current and future projects.
Over the next month or two (this is early summer, 1993) I will be finishing my next solo album, Propagation.. It’ll be out on the Hearts of Space label in February. I hope to remix some of my old trance music for CD after that, and maybe do a new album of drone music for a limited release. After that, hopefully a new full length Amoeba.
12) Closing comments, if any?
Gee, is this my chance to get pretentious and philosophical? Would your readers mind if I preached for just a moment? I mentioned earlier that my biggest inspiration is this dripping, squelching miracle of a planet we live on. This is our nest, our womb, and for the last few centuries it’s been dominated by a species that seems unable to stop fucking it up. Did you know that in the 20th century, we have been responsible for a greater mass extinction than during any ice age or meteor impact in this planet’s history? We don’t even know half of the species of life forms on this planet, yet we are destroying them faster than we are discovering them. It’s the American way to consume – we value it more than freedom, I think. But we’re consuming everything. We’re shitting in our own nest, and eating our own arms and legs in order to feed our massive appetite for entertainment, novelty and comfort. If my music reflects my obsessions with life, death and fertility, it also reflects my fear of living in a man-made wasteland, my occasional shame for being a member of the dominant culture responsible for this stupidity, and my disgust with our lack of desire to change the status quo.
But I probably wouldn’t express these thoughts if I thought there was no use in trying to change things. I am a bit concerned by the general sense of complete hopelessness that is often expressed in underground art culture. I think sometimes people think it’s more important to act cool than to have a positive impact on the world. Face it, it’s easier to look hip when your apathetic than when you care. I think it’s worth taking the risk of being called naive, to actually try to stop destroying the planet we live on. Perhaps it isn’t too late, but we’ll only know if we try.