Steve Roach: The Shaman of Contemporary Electronic Music
by Nenad Georgievski, Shine Magazine
Steve Roach is a unique figure in the contemporary ambient music. His albums consistently push the boundaries and theories about music itself by taking ambient music to places and locations that even Brian Eno himself never thought of. By recording on exotic locations in Australia and US he offers much more than music by allowing the ambient of these exotic places to come to expression. His last work is collaboration with Robert Fripp (King Crimson) is titled TRANCE SPIRITS and is topping the charts for instrumental music, which was one of the reasons for interviewing this artist.
When a person listens to your records one can notice that it can't be described by using the usual pop music vocabulary. I think that the most appropriate term would be sound sculpturing or an "ongoing process". In the past due to the limited vocabulary it was described as New Age music. How would you describe the music you create?
The willful intention in all my music is to create an opening which allows me to step out of everyday time and space into a place I feel we are born to experience directly. Many of our current social structures and material concerns shut down the opening or build a complex array of plumbing to run through it. In any case, these soundworlds offer a place where the bondage of western time is removed and the direct experience of the feeling of an expanded state of awareness is encouraged. Of course the soundworlds I choose to create and live within are the ones my nervous system responds to, and people aren't necessarily going to respond to them in the same way, but over the years it seems these many common points that we all share in the human experience that my music reflects. I often refer to the words "visceral" and "being in the sound current" when describing my work. This is a prime area where I feel the measure of all my work... in the body, the vessel for spirit. So for me to create these sounds and rhythms and utilize my own body as the reflecting chamber is my direct way of living in the sound current that occurs naturally when the juices are flowing. From the feedback I receive, this is something I know receptive listeners are feeling as well. Tapping into the creative process at this direct level simply feels like a birthright.
Also, do you think that by labelling it into a category the music is somewhat at a loss?
Absolutely, the music suffers and potential new listeners miss out if a too-hip-to-live journalist has an axe to grind or personal agenda about a kind of music they don't understand or appreciate. It just seems a pity how an art form that is really just a few decades old has had to deal with so much misunderstanding on some levels.
As for the "New Age" term, I feel the idea of new age culture as a separate popular entity and catch-all term was more obvious in the 80's and 90's. Now much of this "culture" appears to have integrated into the mainstream awareness, with the increased awareness of health, Eastern ideology merging with West, yoga, shamanism and so on. I see it as a good thing. I see that the pop aspect of it has always been a problem in terms of the superficial qualities that make the cynical faction of the media focus towards. I personally felt my music reach a lot of people who were eager to hear something new when the New Age tag was placed upon it. But also, a lot of misinformed reviews occurred by people that I could tell never listened to the music, just going on hearsay. Beyond that, the real pure qualities of the so-called new age helped to shift in awareness towards a music that is really about defying categories. I just make the music I am driven towards hearing. After that the categories game seems to be some part of human nature. Outside of interviews, its not something I ponder.
In many interviews you pointed out the German musical scene from the 70's like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultze, etc. as some of your early influences. In what way did they influence you and do you see yourself as part of that tradition?
25 years ago, the music of the so-called German school and so on was a significant part of my search for new sounds and exploring new artistic philosophies. It was helpful in opening the door to other possibilities. As I started to explore my own inner musical impulses and my connection to my own environment, I would leave much of that world behind in the early 1980's. It is safe to say the influences of this era could be traced within the deeper fabric of today's work. Popul Vuh, Klaus Schulze, Ash Ra Temple... that was all quite exotic for a young guy in Southern California in the mid-70's who was not interested in the Beach Boys and American pop music of the time.
Another important early phase was my love for the minimalism school: Glass, Reich and Riley in the 80's. I have some great concert memories of being front row center for Philip Glass Ensemble's "Einstein On The Beach," "Glass Works" and so on. Same with Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, Drumming, Octet and so on. This music was something I was quite drawn towards, especially in the live setting, even more than listening to records. It was rare for me to listen to Philip Glass at home, but I was always ready for the concerts. On the other hand the early Berlin School, Tangerine Dream, Schulze, Ash Ra, Can... was something that I listened to often and was quite taken by because of the surreal and textural nature combined with the primal power of the sequencing has always been intoxicating and mind-opening for me. Naturally the common theme between these different schools was the repetition, either by the constant movement of live players or sequencer-driven trance. I wanted to experience all of it at a deep level.
Do you remember the first recording that made an impact on you?
That would have to be Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. As a yongerster the sense of music creating another world was a strong memory that I still have. This was long before Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. Years later Timewind would be a significant opening of of a new door for me.
How did your interest in electronic music evolve?
Its been a long, wonderful and strange trip indeed. When I set out to live the creative life as a sound sculptor, it was a different time to say the least. In the mid-70's this music was still being born, especially here in the States. There were almost no labels, no real radio support, a few underground magazines like Eurock and Synapse, the latter of which I also wrote for. But compared to today, with the Internet as the hub of all things, it was the dark ages. One can only imagine trying to hook up with like-minded people or get your music to people beyond your immediate reach. It was also an incredibly exciting time with impending changes in the air. The frontier of consciousness-expanding music was clearly growing, and this impetus was spawning many new instruments and small companies that often came and went as fast as they appeared. I set out to do electronic music against many odds, but my passion to live in the sound current was all that mattered, and this is what drove me through all the highs and lows and beyond the naysayers.
At that time only a handful of people around me knew what I was talking about when I would start on these born-again tirades about the "music of the future". There really was a feeling of being a part of something significant in a historic sense. To witness all these changes and to meet and work with many of the people helping to bring all this together in such a short time was nothing short of fantastic.
It was just 20 years ago that getting your music onto an LP or a cassette run was a major accomplishment. Then there were the tasks of gathering names from underground sources and mailing packages and letters to each and every one. It was a grassroots effort where I felt like every cassette or LP sent out was like a personal connection. My obsession to live these soundworlds just keeps feeding the fire more, every day.
The music you create has a strong awareness of its surroundings i.e. it reflects the ambience in which it was created, especially the deserts. One can feel the heat of the desert and the presence of the desert itself and you have also recorded in desert locations in Australia and Arizona. In what way does the desert inspire you and your work?
The desert is my home in the truest sense of the word. I have never found any other environment that feeds me like this place. The long distance views, the extreme and often subtle displays of life, death and the display of time in motion are constant. By immersing myself in this environment and taking cues from its rhythms, its extremes of heat and cold, its profound moments of silence and the effect these things have on my own body and psyche, I find the music will often compose itself when I return to the studio. The idea is to not represent the desert in a literal-musical way, but to tap into the invisible, primordial source that expresses itself most eloquently through the desert, to let that force influence my work. These feelings would be difficult to capture in words, and if I were to try to plan a composition around them in some intellectual way, I would be sure to fail. It is a matter of responding to each and every moment authentically, instinctually and at a visceral level.
Have you ever given any thought to the cinematic effect the music has?
It's part of the experience for me, the images that the music suggests. Sometimes the images come first and I create the soundtrack for my one inner film, so to speak.
You have built your own home studio The Timeroom in Tucson, Arizona. Is it a fairly "normal" recording environment or a strange and wonderful place like one might imagine when listening to your music?
The neutral, safe environment of the Timeroom is something that I longed to have before building it from the ground up. My Timeroom studio as a state of mind has travelled with me through several locations throughout California over the years before it evolved into its current state. When it was time to make a more permanent space I wanted to create a space that was more than a room full of gear. It had to offer a kind of sanctuary during the creative process and also let the feeling of the location inside. For me this was achieved by the shape, windows and colour scheme, the arrangement of gear, and no phones or clocks. It's one large room.
The thing that makes it stand apart from other studios is the large floor-to-ceiling "picture" window that looks directly out on the desert and craggy ridges and mountains directly out back. From my position at the mixing board, I can gaze out, or other times I pull the blinds and create a cave or Kiva-like environment. Since I often refer to the ways of a visual artist, painter or sculptor in how I create, having a solitary studio that allows lots of natural light into the space is important to me. When I am deep into a project the space is set up for me to sleep and stay inside the sound current for a few days at a time.
While recording these albums you collaborated with Australian aborigines (Australia) as well as North American Indians (Kiva). Can you describe the process of creation of these two records? Can these records be considered to be "World Music" records, or don't you feel comfortable with this term?
Dreamtime Return was certainly a culmination of my deepest desires and aspirations up to that point. It's where I feel came into my own as an artist. It was really an initiation for me on many levels including the connection to my own sound that I was constantly searching out. Most of all, it was a time of intensive personal growth and understanding. Also with the music, I felt that I'd left a lot of the European influences behind at that point, integrating them as well. This is when the relationship to my own land in which I'd grown up became really clear to me, starting with Western Spaces. Also the feeling of a sonic and spiritual bridge between the Southwest and the Australian outback was awakening. I spent a lot of time Joshua Tree outside of L.A. in the desert region. I grew up in the Southern California Deserts, Anza Borrego and others. So all of that was there for me to connect to in a deeply personal way. I was feeling a sense of spiritual expansion, out from beyond the desert I grew up in and was inspired by, to a much larger, less familiar landscape. This is when the Dreamtime concept started to unfold.
Around this time I also saw the film by Peter Weir, The Last Wave, and hearing the first didgeridoo. That introduced me to at least a white filmmaker's version of certain mystical aspects of the Dreamtime and Aboriginal culture in its own obviously diluted way. But still, it was a significant step in my growing fascination with Australia for many years. I had a friend who moved to Australia in the 60's and came back with great stories of this faraway place that captivated me. It was alive in my subconscious for years. In the mid 80's I was starting to work on preliminary pieces for Dreamtime Return, just gathering different impressions with no idea that I would be going to Australia. I really hadn't thought about it much more than just fascination about the worlds out there, that you can travel to in your imagination.
Knowing I was working on this project, the owner of Fortuna Records at the time, Ethan Edgecomb, sent me a book "Archaeology of the Dreamtime", about the time I was starting to get deeper into the project, around 1986. Probably within a month of receiving that book and reading it -- which was from more of a anthropological point of view of the Australians Aboriginals in the Cape York area (of Australia) -- I received a phone call from a filmmaker who was working on a film called the Art of the Dreamtime. Using that very same book as a reference, he was producing a documentary for PBS and planning an expedition to that very same remote area in Cape York with a film crew from a university. One thing led to another, and I became the musician / composer on that expedition. They took care of everything for me, so I was one of the crew members. It was just an unbelievable turn of events. The filmmaker said he first heard my music when he was traveling to Mexico through Texas and Structures from Silence was playing on the radio late at night across the desert. I remember him say at that he felt like he was in a Stanley Kubrick film. The feeling of synchronicity was overwhelming at times. Along with being in those remote Aboriginal sites for weeks, the entire project brought up so much in me that went way beyond music. Being at these sites, sleeping on the same dirt as the ancient people of the land and listening to pieces on headphones that I'd already created back in the Timeroom before I ever imagined I would go to Australia was unforgettable.
So it was a tremendous opening for me as an artist, as a human being, and as a person who really listens with their ear to the ground very closely. That to me was a direct experience of how magical things can happen when you listen with your heart and mind. They continue to spiral out, unfolding with a natural order. I feel the uninterrupted connection still reverberating from that point -- the understanding that I came to during the 2 years of making Dreamtime Return. By 1989 I was back in Australia for a second adventure that led to the project Australia: Sound of the Earth.
It was directly after this second trip to Australia that I moved to Tucson and started a new life with my wife Linda Kohanov.
Kiva was created from a more traditional project point of view. We brought ourselves together after several weeks of pre-preparation. Ron Sunsinger was the one responible for gathering the indigenous sources. Once we met up we created our own Kiva, our sacred space environment, and continued to create the flow of the music. During the week we also recorded our own ceremonial performances in a fantastic limestone cave near Santa Fe, New Mexico. We then took these back the studio and continued to weave these into the mix.
Both of these recordings are good examples of why it so difficult to try and categorize the end result as simply World Music, at a loss for a term. It's often more than music as it enters into the realm of sacred sounds and elusive ancestral moments captured on a recording.
Do you travel the globe to study the sounds, instruments and rhythms, or is it more of an inner journey?
At this point its more inner, and by way for remote research, exploring and experimenting within the studio with new instruments and musicians that play unique instruments.
Can you describe your approach toward composing? Do you improvise while composing? How do you structure and arrange your ambient works?
I have no formula since every project takes on a different shape and set of harmonic-sonic-mythic-rhythmic puzzles to solve and explore and all into by chance. In some settings the feeling of creating a film is the best way to compare the process. Shooting the film can be compared to capturing improvisations and explorations in the moment, then telling the story by way of editing, like how the texture and grain of the film, the processing, can drive it, slow it down, sweep one away... whatever... I get tremendous inspiration from films in this way along with the visual arts. Since I never really do "songs" many of the long form pieces are created from many different elements that, once woven into the fabric, serve many purposes in the big picture.
With many of the long form pieces I will essentially live with the piece throughout the day and night, often going to sleep and waking with the piece playing live in the studio. I have been doing this since the early-80's and I have found that this level of living inside the music lets me perform micro adjustments that all add up to a nuance-filled space that seems to breathe and live once they find their way to CD.
It's interesting having grown up with analog equipment -- synths and recording equipment. For me the organic influence has created a foundation that can absorb whatever new approach comes along, while still keeping the priorities straight in terms of keeping the human element alive in the machine. Since this was the only way to create in the "old days," with the analog gear nothing could be stored in memory, you always had to approach it in the moment with these living sounds. It's still how I work now, but with the luxury of the evolution in technology.
I also take a lot of cues for my ambient pieces from the movements right outside my studio, the shades of light changing throughout the day, the array of clouds and the counter movement between them, letting all this be absorbed into my body clock so to speak. This is where I can translate these organic movements into form with my harmonic clouds and atmospheres of light.
Since you are involved in electronic music what is your approach to technology? Do you keep up with the latest technology? How important is to be kept up to date with the latest technology?
I keep my ear to the ground for what could be a valid new tool in my approach, but it's not important to be on the bleeding edge with all the latest and so-called greatest gear and programs. On the most part I don't read the monthly "tech lust" magazines as it seems the news of what's really worth checking out travels more directly from a few people I respect and know I can count on.
At this point in my life I just want to protect my time and keep the priorities clear: creating music and living a life that feeds the music. I see plenty of people around me getting caught up in the game of thinking new gear will create new music. I really don't feel this is the case. They seem to be constantly learning new programs and synths but not really going deep into the inner life where the real art emerges. The music industry feeds on this kind of human compulsion towards always wanting to encourage that new is better, and you will have the edge and so on. The home recording industry money machine has created a kind of "need" that approaches drug addiction in comparison. I don't have any answers and have been there myself with the gear hunger, so I speak from my own experience. Now I have found my peace with it all, and keep the discipline to work with what I have until something comes along that is clearly a big step in the direction I can relate to. I still find my self-discovering new sound equipment that was considered outdated long ago. My approach to creating the soundworlds I am drawn towards demands an organic, intuitive interface. I have a very efficient way of moving into an evaluation period with whatever new (or old) piece of tech I might audition.
What do you think about the progress of technology in music?
I have always embraced the technology with open arms. I was ready to carve out my soundworlds with all these tools, and when I laid hands on my first "ancient" synthesizer years ago, I knew this was my path. It was never a strange feeling or something I had to adjust to; it was a natural process for me.
I feel just in my lifetime so far, the evolution is incredible with these tools that help create worlds that would not be heard just a few years ago. For me these instruments and the technology can be like the finest single-haired paint brush or surgical laser. They can also share the same space as the most ancient music "technology" touching infinitely subtle, complex and unseen worlds within the human experience. This is the core of the music for me, why I am so compelled to paint with sound.
I see the didgeridoo, and my favourite analog synthesizer the Oberheim Matrix 12, as both being high points in their time. It has to start with the human need to hear these sounds and then find a way to make the instrument do so. Sonically they can create very similar feelings. The didgeridoo was naturally a much, much earlier form of technology, one that created a rich, continuous drone in the same way as the most current synthesizer and computer set up. The impact of the didgeridoo's sound has lasted for thousands of years, and yet for me when blending the two worlds, the primordial and electronic, a kind of magic occurs that feels perfect and truly timeless. In the right hands, the Oberheim Matrix 12 Analog Synth can tap into the same timeless realm as the didg, and elaborate on this feeling with a much more intricate series of multi-layered drones that blossom into waves of sound that seem to be spilling forth from other worlds. Of course in the wrong hands, both the didg and the Matrix 12 (or any synth) can be irritating, threatening or just plain boring. It's a matter of the artist's intention and skill, and how deep he or she is willing to draw upon their own true source of inspiration and translate it through the wood log or plastic and metal electronic devices.
In addition to your solo work, you have done a number of large-scale collaborations over the years with a diverse range of musicians. What do you find most rewarding about collaborative work? Most frustrating? Any memorable moments you'd like to share from collaborations past or present?
The collaborations with Vidna Obmana are by far the most powerful and inspiring because of our friendship, the time we have spent in the studio and on stage, and our basic shared ideals. The collaborations with Jorge Reyes and Suso Saiz (Suspended Memories) provided some mighty fun times recording in Madrid one week, flying to Osnabruck Germany the next for the Klangart festival, and completing Earth island in a farm house converted into a fine studio. The atmosphere with Jorge and Suso was always a fascinating mix. The sessions were always in the spirit of fun and good humor.
There are so many memories, a collection of dream-like images that linger... hmmmm, better left that way!
Some of your most successful collaborations are those with Vidna Obmana with whom you recorded several albums. What is it that you contribute to these collaborative albums and what is your opinion of these albums?
True collaborations, the ones that I am interested in exploring, are based on more than musical ambitions. The richness comes though mutual respect and the understanding of common desires and spiritual pursuits, both in the music and in life. If the collaboration spirit has real strength its deeper expressions are made real by the process itself over time, more than just a few CD's. My work with Vidna Obmana over the years has reflected this in a powerful way and our recent chapter in going to the edge in concert has been another exciting discovery of the understanding we share in the studio and in life. It's really impossible to divide up the elements we contribute. It's really an uncanny way of working, not logical at all, wether we are in the same room or a few thousand miles apart. Some kind of energy is felt and tapped into when we commence work. For me Well of Souls and InnerZone hold a high place in my life.
When you collaborate with other artists such as Robert Rich or Vidna Obmana, are the pieces actually composed in some way, or improvised?
A combination of both,.if we start a piece in the same physical space then it's us playing off each other, improvising and feeling the sounds merge. If it's a long distance collaboration, then we will send tracks to each other. With Vidna Obmana our collaborative understanding is so strong that when we send tracks back and forth, it seems like we are truly in the same space together creating in the moment. I find the best mode is where we get together and create a lot of material together, then return to our own space and take the time to experiment on the original track from our sessions. We might pass these back and forth several times before it's complete.
Do you feel that by working with different people, it helps you develop different creative elements within you?
Yes indeed, if it's a true collaboration, it lets you focus on each other's strengths, combining things you might not consider, being open to another point of view, exchanging different approaches, and just sharing some quality time for a brief period in the Timeroom.
On some of the productions and collaborations with newcomers, my role as a mentor kicks in with the various parameters of producing and releasing music. In any case, the environment of the Timeroom along with the feeling outside sets the mood that does wonders for the creative process all the way around.
Do you prefer collaborations to solo work?
I always prefer solo work at the end of the day. Since I have no brothers or sisters, I grew up being comfortable as more of a lone coyote. The collaborative impulses have naturally given me the feeling of a kind of brother or sister relationship to some degree, but really in this life I learned I prefer to go my own way after a few weeks of collaboration. Time to head back out into the desert, alone, again.
Is there anyone that that you haven't worked with that you'd like to collaborate with in the future?
This might sound strange, but it's Robert Plant. I would love to create soundworlds within his soulful tracks.
Trance Sprits is your latest collaboration which includes Jeffry Fayman and Robert Fripp. Can you tell me more about this project, and how did Fripp get involved? Two years ago he collaborated with Fayman for Temple in the Clouds, and now the two of them are working with you. What is your opinion on the records he did with Eno during the 70's (No Pussyfooting and Evening Star)?
Jeffrey Fayman got in touch with me a few years ago, first as an enthusiast of my music and second to introduce me to his Temple in the Clouds demo, asking if I could help him find a label. My first thought was Projekt and its owner Sam Rosenthal. Sam was a fan of the Fripp & Eno releases, so he was happy to put this one out. I remember the first moment I heard No Pussyfooting when it came out in the 70's, another pivotal moment for me in terms of hearing a new paradigm.
In that same original demo package which Jeff sent, he included a collection of trance drumming with me in mind. These tracks simply blew me away on first listen. Jeffrey creates music for the big Hollywood films, so the cinematic impact within his music is clear. Beyond all the technology he works with his command of pure African drumming. He often plays in drum circles and with African groups as the only non-African player. Over the next year he would sit in on several of my concerts adding percussion. The spirit of our live interaction, mixed with the style of trance percussion he first sent, became the blueprint for the Trance Spirits release. Soon Jeffrey and I started to get together, working on it whenever we could. Eventually the idea to include Robert Fripp came up. Since he is good friends with Jeff, it was a natural for us include him. He essentially created several hours of soundscapes for us to pull from. At this same time I was starting to do more serious experiments with my own approach to guitar loops. Since I was spending a lot of time with the tracks, I found myself creating many guitar-based soundscapes that grew directly out of the trance tracks. In the end we used Robert's soundscapes on three tracks. These offered a powerful contrast to my approach.
Our aim with Trance Sprits was to start in the stratosphere and end in the stratosphere, maintaining a state of focus and energy. The trance state here is one of being alert, fully alive with a laser-like focus, maybe like the energy of a large jungle cat on the move.
What is your opinion of the current electronic music trends?
I have to admit I don't know where to start in terms of the current electronic music trends; it just appears so overwhelming now. It seems the dance DJ element has the biggest shadow cast over the world in the most visible way, and also with who the equipment is targeted towards.
For me the ongoing drive lives outside of trends. The place I feel I inhabit is about doing it for the love of sound. This is what really speaks to me. It's up to those making the music to meet the challenge of having all the tools anyone could ever ask for, and then having something that is connected to the bigger picture and comes from a genuine place. I have always seen this indefinable sound-art as an outlet for the innately talented, those who not too long ago might never have found their way to express these worlds. This means more and more people like myself who didn't fit into the conformity of academic demands, or who didn't give into the creative imprisonment in the conventional matrix of the music business, can create their own way with true independence.
I feel the best qualities of this music are evolving in exciting ways, in all the sub genres. It's a moot point to say the boundaries are dissolving; it's a big boiling pot of artists and humanity by now. Within that boiling pot you will get the McDonald's hamburgers and you will get real, genuine, authentic food for the soul. I say just keep stirring it, adding new ingredients and trying new recipes while staying connected to the soulful qualities that move one to create in the first place. The good stuff will rise and the rest will fall away like it always has. One thing for sure is there will be more of both extremes.
Please tell us something about future projects and your activities which are to follow. In which direction do you see your music going?
I have just returned home after doing concerts and creating new live music for the last 7 months. In November, a 2-CD set "All is Now" will be coming from all of this. Disc one will be one concert (Sedona, Arizona). Disc two will be a collection of peak points from various concerts all melted into one hybrid set. Also in November, "Day Out of Time" the soundtrack to the DVD "Time of the Earth" will be released on my Timeroom Editions label.
From now through the rest of the year, the focus will be on Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces. This will be going into the center of the expansive, harmonic landscapes and soundworlds I am most drawn towards. It will be absent of all rhythmic elements. I have been working on it, on and off, for over a year now. Above and beyond all of this, just being home after all the travel, to be back in the land of slow heat is all I can ask for. From here the direction for what is to come will make itself known soon enough.