At the Edge with Steve Roach
Synthesis Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1992

For starters, tell us about your new double CD, World's Edge.

Well, the album starts with the title track "World's Edge". That piece was recorded live in my studio in Los Angeles, in Venice. It was the last piece that I recorded there, and it was specifically done for Echoes. John Diliberto was in the studio at the moment that it was recorded for the living room concert series. It really seemed to capture the overall feeling that I was headed towards as I was leaving Los Angeles after having been there 10 years. I was leaving a lot in terms of all the friends and experiences I had while living there. [At the same time] I really didn't feel that it was important to be in Los Angeles anymore. Basically I needed to leave L.A. (the place had such a stranglehold on me), and it took time to make the jump, to go to the next edge - away from the concrete, metal, and glass - which in my case was moving out into the desert and saturating myself in a landscape that has many of the properties I relate to in music. There is a real parallel with the land out here and the music to which I'm drawn. Anyway, I was leaving for Australia 2-3 days after that first piece was recorded. I was putting my entire studio in a 10x10 storage room and was really stepping off the edge in a lot of ways. To just pull up, not knowing where you are really going to is kinda the whole feeling I was getting into. I was going on a feeling of trust, a feeling of following my instincts – which is pretty much how I move through life and through my music. Just knowing that I was coming back to the United States after spending two months in Australia to find a new home somewhere in the desert – but I didn't know where – set the tone for the album. From that point on the album takes one on a journey. Actually disc one was finished and I thought, "This is it! The album is complete." I went back to Los Angeles to master it and while I was home listening to it and recording other things, the foundation for the second piece came out. I really felt, then, like the album wasn't over yet. Looking back, disc one delivered me to the origin of disc two. So I worked on the piece a bit more and then proposed the idea [of a double CD] to the record company. They said, "Go for it", so I did. I worked on it for another four months or so.

The track "Threshold" has a lot of sounds not unlike the ones heard on Quiet Music 2.

There are certain similarities that I think you might find in some of the earlier Quiet work, but for me the feeling is very different from the Quiet/Structures period. The method of creating the underlying atmospheric foundation that the piece was built on was a totally different approach than anything else I had ever done. It was about 5-6 different chord progressions of different lengths which were all interrelated to each other. They were clocked separately from each other so they would never repeat. It was recorded in a very, very slow motion phase sequence pattern. I guess you could figure out if it was necessary for someone to do such a thing - that the whole chord sequence might come into phase in about five days or something.

On the whole, which is more difficult for you: composing a 60-minute piece or a traditional 6-minute track?

There are totally different challenges in both time frames. There are certain pieces that last six minutes and feel like they are never going to end because either they don't develop properly or they're simply irritating to you. I think there is a challenge to creating short pieces. Traveler was my statement there. At that time most of the European music was all long form. And I felt a real challenge to do pieces that got to the point, made a statement, and then moved on without spending a whole side of a record to do that. Although the long form is very appealing to me, the short form was just another discipline that I wanted to explore. Using synthesizers, I was discovering so many areas that you could go into – different feelings and psychological cinematic states of mind that, in terms of a visual picture in your mind, create paintings. Many times, like painting or sculpting, you come in on it real close, work on a detailed area for a couple of days, and just listen to it and listen to it and listen to it. Sometimes you listen to it from a different room. Sometimes you listen to it at a louder volume or a quieter volume. You'll try different configurations of patches and so on from the myriad of choices that you have. So when you are listening to a 60-minute piece after working at it at a microscopic level, you have to back up from it, like a huge canvas or a mural on a building. So you can imagine gaining perspective on a 60-minute piece can be all-consuming, which is what I love: to be immersed in the sound completely.

In the last interview, Kit Watkins said you could really get lost in the process, working in such detail.

Yes, this is very true, yet at the same time I like to give birth to a piece in a spontaneous moment. Sometimes there is nothing more that needs to be added; it is perfect the way it is, and to add more would be messing with it when it is not necessary. Structures From Silence was primarily recorded live to two track and that was it. There was no question about adding more.

Structures seems to be album that catapulted you to high stature in the electronic music community. Would you say that is a fair assessment?

Well, it certainly is the album that brought more attention to my work. I think mostly because it was breaking away from the Teutonic tradition, and it was for me a further evolution of working with these instruments and, above all, trying to penetrate into some deeper state of musical consciousness through the instruments. That music was actually created alongside Traveler, [alternating between them] from one day to the next. I would be working with the shorter pieces one day and the next I would be playing with longer pieces. Structures grew out of this need to cool off from the more rhythmic driving pieces. Its like one music grew out of the other. So it was an interesting organic process of the music finding itself and then evolving. I think that's pretty much how I look at all of my releases, that one comes out of the other; whether simultaneously or a month later – they're connected somehow.

Did you have an inkling that Structures was going to be as successful as it was?

I had no idea. I mean I sat on that music for a year. I just listened to it for myself. It was so nurturing to me and it gave me something that I really needed at that time in terms of an inner calmness in the eye of the storm; you know, living in L.A. just barely getting by.

Getting back to World's Edge, except for "Thunderground" and "Drift", all the titles are from the poem that you have printed on the inside cover. What prompted you to write that poem?

I wanted to present some kind of framework that people could read without getting a very literal story; something that might trigger the listener on a sub-conscious or abstact level. The overall feeling of the poem just seems to capture my own personal climate of the past three years.

So it wasn't any particular experience at one time. There wasn't a sunset or something that you saw. It was just an amalgam of feelings that you felt you had to present in words.

Yeah, in terms of the overall three years. It is about taking a chance. During the period I was recording Empetus I started to support myself: I quit my job on a Friday and my car got stolen on Saturday. I just removed my OB-8 from the back of it, I went back to get my car and it was gone. That was like "ok man, welcome to the edge". That's one aspect. Ya know, you live in this world and you deal with things. I am very aware of the creative process and I really enjoy playing with it in different ways. Being out in the desert has really been an incredible time... to go deep out here and to let the inspiration kick in. I think the culmination of these experiences and the relationship that I am in now with my wife... everything is so rich and so inspiring in many ways. It is the culmination of everything that has been happening, looking at what's going on in the world at this time. I work on a level of direct inspiration and transferring that through the creative process in a cathartic sort of way.

Your poem includes the phrase "where souls roam." Why did you write the song "When Souls Roam" ?

That's very observant of you, to read into it at that level. I just felt when I wrote that collection of words that I would set up a feeling in more of a vague sense. When I wrote it out it seemed to work better that way for me. Beyond that...

What exactly were you referring to in "Thunderground"?

Well, "Thunderground" is really like the picture that is next to the poem [on the inside cover of the CD -ed.] You see the lightning behind me. It is actually hitting the ground. That's a real shot that happened to capture the whole essence of the album. We didn't have a seam until we took that picture and then the whole lightning concept came through. But "Thunderground" was already a piece titled, written, and finished. It just ties in somehow, that there were many different levels of thought when working on that piece. For one thing, the lightning storms and the thunder that occurs out here is absolutely incredible, it feels like it is charging up the earth with its electricity and power. Somehow you feel like it is coming right up into your legs. So that's one aspect of it. Another aspect is the mythical story of a young warrior going off to find himself through facing danger and fear. Facing that fear and then transforming it into something. He comes back from that process wiser and somehow stronger through it.

What projects are you working on now?

Well the most immediate thing is the new album with Robert Rich for Hearts of Space, due for release in September. Also, I just finished this recording with Jorge Reyes and Suso Saiz which at this point looks like it will be released in Spain and Mexico. It won't be released in the United States until after June of 1993. And I'll also be performing in Spain, Germany, Canada, and here in Tuscon.

Can you tell me the last book you read; movie you watched; and CD you bought.

The last movie I saw was Naked Lunch.

That was an excellent movie wasn't it?

Incredible movie. I saw it with Robert Rich and my wife Linda and we didn't go to sleep until 5 in the morning.

Talking about it or thinking about it?

Both. We really did feel stimulated by it. Oh yes, I also saw Wim Wender's Until the End of the World, which was utterly fascinating. Books: I usually start about three books and keep juggling around between them when I am not reading [keyboard] manuals. The books that I have recently started were Jaguars Rip My Flesh by Tim Cahill, Risky Business, and The Sheltering Sky. So between those and manuals I read a couple of books a year. And the CDs I've recently bought are O'Yuki Conjugate and Gnawa Music of Marrakesh.

Is there anything you want the readers of SYNTH to know about?

Well, to add to what we said earlier, things really need to happen in the States. It's not that there aren't a lot of energetic pockets of people doing this music. If we got everybody together it would be as big as anything in Europe. It's just that we are so spread out here...

Exactly.

...and that makes it really difficult for people to get together and organize things.

Right, because there is stuff going on in L.A. and the guys on the East Coast can't get out there. And you might be playing in Philadelphia or New York but anybody west of Ohio can't get to see it - its just not feasible.

That's exactly the problem we see. People here have been playing music as long as anybody has been in Europe, but the proximity of different countries and the ability to ride the train through all those different countries makes travelling more accessible. Everything is totally different. And every interview I do people ask why there aren't more concerts for this music in the U.S. Why it isn't more organized; and I never have a simple answer. It was an incredible thing to go to Europe and meet people from different countries. It was very emotional and rewarding in ways that are beyond measure. For me to go over to Germany after all the years of thinking of Germany as a sort of mythical land of electronic music and to be playing there all of a sudden for an audience of enthusiastic people that know your music, it's awesome. [People there] are all excited about what I am doing and what others are doing in the U.S. They're looking over here now for inspiration. That was another thing about the trip to Europe that was interesting. They are absolutely interested in what is going on over here. A lot of artists' works over there sound like American EM. The thing, too, Jason, is there is a lot of money from federal and local governments that help support their concerts and events. Most of our concerts are pulled off by independent money. In Spain for example, where I am supposed to do a tour in April with Robert Rich, it is largely through local government grants [that is is possible for events to be scheduled].

That's something we need a little bit more of here, even if it is just university grants. It's how Peru was able to play over here, I believe. The economy isn't so great at this moment but it wasn't always this poor, so you can't really blame it on bad economic times.

No you can't. It makes it more of a challenge but at the same time, the dedication and the need to this music keeps growing and expanding. A lot of times it takes something oppressive to drive through the need for something really vital to happen, because you can only deal with so much apathy before you just say "fuck it" and break through. Out of that comes real change.

Is there anything tangible about what is so captivating about the desert and, in particular, Australia to you?

Well, Australia is a long story, but in short, I think one of the reasons I'm living in Tucson is because it feels like there is a real connection between my favorite aspect of Australia and my favorite aspect of the southwest, which is the quality of land. It feels like it has really been through a lot. It is almost like you can walk out into areas and feel that it was just made a few moments ago, but at the same time, it has been here since the creation of this whole orb that we're flying around on. Its just a sense of time that I get here that I don't receive in forrested areas or in areas that are more enclosed, dense, or lush. The timelessness of it all. Just being able to see for a great distance with unobstructed visual input, which metaphorically represents a lot to me in terms of the music that I create with the longer thoughts, longer forms. The timbres that melt in and out of each other and the way they almost create an audio-optic illusion. The light is always shifting over the mountains so you have a totally different perspective of the land than you had twenty minutes before. Some people just wouldn't get it. Some people just wouldn't get it. Some folks are really attracted to lush green places. But I feel that the desert is my spiritual home. Often some of your strongest memories are left with you from childhood. For me, those memories are when my folks used to take me out to the deserts outside of San Diego and Arizona. I can still taste it in my mouth. I can still hear the sounds and the feelings in new ways. I think that's where the Australian connection came. I could certainly have found this desert intensity in the southwest, but I think I was at a time in my life where I was interested in Australia, the Australian culture, the aspect of the Dreamtime, the Aboriginal people. The desert for me is like an empty canvas; you go out and let things appear upon the canvas. It can be things that often go beyond the desert itself. It can be very intense, for sure. Sometimes it's so quiet and so still in the desert that its almost unnerving. I enjoy going out on days when the wind is absolutely still and suspended in time. The heat is also what I live for out here. Sometimes it feels like the boundaries of your body break down. It is the best you could ask for without having to do large amounts of hallicinogenics in order to get in touch with another state...

I assume you learned how to play didjeridu on one of your trips to Australia, if not the first one. Is that something you learned over there or did you bring it back with you? And how difficult is it to play?

On my first trip I met up with David Hudson (who plays didjeridu on Sound of the Earth). At that time I brought back three didjeridus that he made. He showed me in just a few minutes the basic method of going about getting a sound out of it. I kept asking him "how do you do it", and he kept laughing, saying "this is how you do it" and he would play it and I would say "but how do you do it?" Finally it occurred to me that the instrument itself teaches you how to play. It's very difficult to play. The circular breathing technique is something that I am still getting down. I have a very strong tone and I feel confident playing it rhythmically, but for long and steady tones the circular breathing is something that takes practice to get smooth. {Laughs} In the meantime I sample it. On the piece "Thunderground" [on World's Edge] I am playing it live. But when I do certain pieces where I need long extended tones I do a combination of sampling and playing together.

Can you briefly explain what a didjeridu is?

Essentially it's just a tree branch that's been hollowed out by the termites and is found only in the Northern territory of Australia. I think there are several different trees which you can use but the Bloodwood tree and the Stringy Bark yield the hard wood that you need. The termites eat out the inside and then the instrument builder goes around investigating trees that have a huge ant pile next to them, representing the inside of that tree branch mounded up into a pile of dirt. When he finds this he breaks it off, cleans out the debris and fashions it into a didjeridu of any particular length. So it is essentially a long hollow tube with beeswax at one end for a mouthpiece. And it could be anywhere from 2 1/2 to 3 feet to 6 feet long.

...so there are no holes in there that you play with your fingers...?

Just your mouth, your lips, your throat, your tongue. You use your voice to throw sound into it. Different sounds come from different parts of your throat, down into your belly. So playing the thing over time brings out a primordial kind of thing. It just brings out your own style, your own rhythm. It brings out a certain approach to music that you don't get from putting your hands on plastic keys. At the same time you take what is conveyed through that log and infuse it into the electronics. That is exactly the approach that I used on World's Edge, taking the primordial connection that is made and translating it into the electronics.

Do you think your music deserves a greater recognition here than it is getting at the moment?

Yeah, I feel that my music and a lot of other people's music deserves wider recognition and needs to be taken more seriously. Serious in a sense that it gets more space in more popular music magazines. But it's just not considered hip or trendy. You just don't see articles focusing on this music in very many major magazines, and when you do they are usually written by a few people like John or Linda. [Steve is referring to John Diliberto, EM journalist & host of Echoes, and to Linda Kohanov – Steve's wife – also an EM journalist who writes for various publications such as Pulse! and Keyboard – ed.] It seems easier for the press to pick out the worst of this music and use that as the standard.

It does seem as though the press simply writes off EM/New Age Music. People seem to think it is so easy to create, but that's just not the case. Do you think about that, or have you decided not to dwell on it and just keep putting out records.

That's something I certainly get frustrated with at times, and I have had long discussions about it with Linda and friends, but it doesn't seem to resolve ever. You scratch your head and go back to what's really important: creating the music.

When I read Linda's byline in Tower's Pulse! magazine, which is under New Age, I would think that she would feel confined by that.

Well she does. Starting with the July edition of Pulse! her column will be retitled "Contemporary Instrumental" instead of New Age. She's written an article for that July issue that goes in-depth about the whole New Age issue. [However] the damage has already been done.

The stigma is there.

Yeah, the curse of the "N" word. But I just did an interview with a journalist from Italy who wrote a book on this type of music and to them there is absolutely nothing wrong with the term New Age. They use it in very sophisticated settings.

Originally, the term New Age was meant to be that way. However, the term became overused and misused, and the music got a little bit homogenized...

...and the greed factor kicked in. The record companies flooded the market with music – lots of it watered down – and that's where some of the damage came from initially. I think if you are going to put the music in a category, it has got to be a category that's a little more forgiving than a term that sounds like a buzzword made up in a marketing meeting at a holistic fair.

You've worked with many renowned musicians: Braheny, Burmer, Rich, Stearns... Are there any artists that you'd like to collaborate with in the future?

The person I've been thinking about [collaborating with] recently, in terms of world-class musicians who I have great respect for, is Glen Velez. I work with a lot of synthesists and composers who work in similar ways that I do and it is very challenging because you have to delegate different tasks to one another. You have to be very clear about the roles that you take while working on pieces.

That's why I thought that you and Robert Rich complemented each other so well on Strata. He plays the percussion and you do the electronics - it seems that you compliment each other naturally.

Actually it is not as clear cut as that. This is something we want to break away from in terms of the way the albums are conceived, and the way they are perceived. Because there is a lot of rhythm in my music, and a lot of extended synthetic textures in Robert's music. We try different perspectives, different angles of communicating about what we strive for in our music. We try to find different ways of getting there. On the new album we're working on, initially we were just sitting in the studio playing percussion together live, creating foundation tracks, then combining the rhythms with sampling and other techniques. So [for this new release] we have this blend of percussion that is not like anything that you have heard on any of our albums.

Tell our readers about your concert with Jorge Reyes.

I first met Jorge in Lanzorte [in the Canary Islands] at a concert we performed together in a volcanic cave. He then invited me to Mexico City to perform in a volcanic crater!

And that was when?

In December. The three concerts in Mexico City were held in a volcanic crater that was about the size of a football field. Circling the crater on the outside perimeter artists built these stone columns that were about 20 feet high and about 15 feet wide with sloping backs. There were probably about 50 of these columns encircling the crater. It was more than slightly surreal, like some sort of Mexican Stonehenge. They built a stage in the center of the crater and brought in a massive sound system. They had enough power coming in there to wire up a city. They had a full water cooled laser system. Mirrors were set up in a circle about the size of a football field at the crater so they could bounce the lasers off them at night while we played, creating these 3-dimensional patterns overhead. The entire audience would come in, move down into the crater, and just sit on the frozen lava.

That sounds awesome.

Some of the people would come in and sit atop the cement monoliths. By the time we played at about 8:30 or 9:00, seeing the smoke and the ambient light shadowing against the people sitting around, and hearing this ethno-electronic music blasting out into the sky, you just knew that it didn't get any better than this.

A mesh of the past, present, and future.

Absolutely. It was overwhelming and even frightening at times because I was standing right there, playing this 40,000 year old instrument [didjeridu] with the techno-tribal rhythms churning away, and looking up at these futuristic laser lights creating 3-dimensional, slowly changing forms over me. That sort of experience influences the music in ways beyond description, and could never occur in the safety of the studio.

Finally, what is the most important thing that you have learned about yourself or your music over the years?

I think the most important thing that I keep coming back to is to keep letting go of my own preconceptions of what it is I am creating musically and to keep pushing to some deeper place within myself. And when the music comes through to just trust it more and more, staying connected to what I feel is the truth and beauty of music. [Also], paying attention to the foundation of where the wellspring of the music is. Being receptive to whatever it is that is being offered in the creative process and in life itself. How you respond to that and how you bring it into life. How you relate to your fellow man. How you live your life with integrity. We are living in a very intense time. In an incredible and exciting changing world. I wouldn't want to be alive at any other time.



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