Walking the Astral Plane With Steve Roach
Highwire Daze Magazine
Steve Roach creates music. What sets him apart from what you consider music is that Roach makes music without vocals, without most traditionalal instruments, and without traditional song structures. His music flows, undulates, weaves around your cranium and insinuates itself into your psyche. It is visual music, evoking images of places fantastic and ancient. Primal, swampy atmosphere swirls around the music created by Roach and his collaborator, vidnaObmana, a Belgian musician who is also a creator of sweeping, ambient soundscapes. Their fifth album together, INNERZONE, out now on Projekt, is best listened to on headphones or in an otherwise quiet environment. It will take you on a journey through inner spaces, an aural trigger for introspection and meditation. Speaking to Mr. Roach on the phone, I found him to be a serious, driven man, an artist who has no other choice but to translate the ideas in his head into pure sound.
When did you start playing music?
About 27 years ago.
Were you still young at the time?
I was still pretty young, actually not as young as some guys start doing music. I started at about 18. I started directly using synthesizers, exploring sound and just going at it in my own way without any training or background. I never played in bands.
What drew you to synthesizers?
From the feeling I got hearing a lot of this music coming from Europe at the time, music by Popol Vuh, Ashra Temple and Can, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, what's considered the Berlin School or the German School of electronic music. What I was hearing there was keying me into a lot of the kind of places I was wanting to go, and was looking to hear, in music and wasn't hearing at that time. This was at the beginning of when [synthesizers] were affordable and portable. Roland was just starting to import their synthesizers into the United States – I think there were only two or three models they were bringing in the mid-70's. I was right there at the beginning of the wave of technology-infused music. I've been riding that wave for all these years, right up to now.
I imagine the synthesizers back then were quite large.
The little Rolands were pretty small. In comparison to today, they were the same size. Certainly the large modulars and the big Moogs and the things you would find in a academic situation that were quite powerful were also completely out of range financially, and also entirely too big to bring home. Now, you fast forward twenty-something years, and it's absolutely incredible how much has occurred so quickly. The things that we take for granted now – especially for the younger guys who didn't start out on the older stuff and the size of it – and the idea that you would work for a couple of days on a sound by patching it up and that was it. You couldn't save it, there was no memory, there was no MIDI, it was just being completely in the present moment with the sound that you had created. That being said, that still has a big influence on how I create my music. It has an organic ebb and flow to it that comes from those roots of carving sound up in the moment, and not being able to save it, so you constantly are approaching those sounds new each day. I think it is a good thing to carry on and apply to the digital age. I work more like a painter or sculptor with sound as opposed to playing parts on a keyboard or guitar.
Speaking of painting, do you do other kinds of artwork?
I wish I had the time. I paint occasionally and I've created album covers in the past, and I do photography when I can, and some Photoshop activity when I can. The main focus and priority with my time is working with sound and music, endless hours through the week. I wake up and start the process every day working in the studio for up to eight hours a day.
You seem to be rather prolific.
I knew fairly early on that I wanted to be in this world as a sound artist. That's how I wanted to spend my time. It gave me the most powerful reflection about growing as a person and the process that you go through when you're working on music, especially in the setting that I've created for myself.
A visual artist is perhaps the most aligned metaphor for how I work, where I spend hours alone working on sounds creating these forms that allow me to use these sounds in some kind of structure that makes sense to me. In that sense you're building your formations from the ground up, from raw materials, you're mixing your own colors and blending. You're spending a lot of time with it. I love that process, the creative flow is what it's about for me. The music at the end is the result, but the process of being in that space while creating is what gets me extremely high and addicted to that whole experience.
The idea of being prolific makes sense for a painter. But artists who I've drawn great inspiration from just had to go with their own flow. They did music because they were driven to do it. Frank Zappa or Miles Davis, for example, they breathed music out and recorded for life. That's what I relate to. Its just a natural process of expression and exploring with sound. I just can't operate under the restrictions that the traditional music industry puts on to protect their investment because they can't have an artist pumping out albums and filling up stores when they're still making their investment back on an album from a year ago. I'm in a completely different world in terms of the music world.
Tell us about your relationship with vidnaObmana.
I met him in the early 90's when I was touring in Europe. He had sent me his music just to share what he was doing and I was going to Europe two weeks later and we met up. We first became friends and started sharing inspiration and ideas and thoughts of music and film. It was about four years before we found ourselves in the studio together. He invited me to help produce an album called The Spiritual Bonding. He flew here to Tucson from Belgium, that was the first stage. We started to get our feet wet working together. We were finding the dialogue, how to work together, without having two sin waves on top of each other that would cancel each other out. That's one thing that can happen in collaborations, where you have guys who are sharing similar roles. But in this case just through his way of hearing and seeing and creating it was like two different contrasting yet complimentary ways of working together.
With vidna and I, we keep asking more questions of each other, we have a great friendship and a deep respect for each other's work and for the process that we go through individually, coming to the table with the communication that we have about the spaces we want to create musically. For INNERZONE we discussed the approach to the music for about a year before we even started it.
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You can't rush this kind of music, and the thought and care that Steve Roach and vidnaObmana put into the album can be experienced many times over. Each time you listen to INNERZONE you might hear something diferent, a synth line or a percussive element that you'd swear wasn't there before. Go to www.steveroach.com to learn more about Steve Roach and to hear the latest recording by this unique and influential sound artist.