Thrust Quarterly, issue 25 (Canada)
by John Sekerka
Tracked down in his new digs in Tucson Arizona, ambient studio whiz, continuing in the long line of electronic pioneers like Klaus Schulze, reclusive sound scaper Steve Roach talks of seclusion, magnificent voids and the artistic quest.
Are you near a desert?
I'm in the desert. That's why I moved here. It was my dream to have a studio in this environment where you can see for many miles in many directions, and the source of feelings that come about from being in this place. That's where a lot of my music comes from.
Are you on the edge of town?
Tucson is about half a million, but I'm outside on the city limits where everything starts to turn into pure desert. Unfortunately civilization is coming in on me, so I'm already looking at the next place, which is about an hour and a half out of town, and at this point, gives me enough of a safety buffer for the next fifty years or so. I really crave this solitary feeling. I can hole up here with my wife for a couple of weeks, and work without distraction. It's absolutely vital for the music that I'm creating.
What exactly is it about the desert that draws you?
The place is so quiet that all you can hear is your heart beating, the functions of your body and your thoughts racing around like a little hamster in a cage. Over time you get more and more comfortable with that deep silence. Creatively, the place that I arrive to in my consciousness when I'm in this kind of physical environment. I can create that kind of silence and solitude in a sound proof studio, but it has no comparison to when you're sitting on a mesa and can see for seventy miles. Yet there's an inverted sense of quiet that is powerful and profound. Hopefully the music that I create portrays the places I go. Beyond that it becomes kind of a moot point of trying to describe it in words. That's why I chose music as a medium, as opposed to being a writer or a visual artist.
I recall a review in which the writer said she put your tape on while driving in the desert, and only then did it make perfect sense. Is that the ideal listening experience: to match the environment?
It's one of the high points to experience the music at. From the feedback I get, people feel it in their own environment in different ways. Hopefully the creative act continues as people find new ways of having sound in their lives. It's not necessarily about having music; it's more about creating an hour of sound sanctuary or sculpture. The work is becoming more dimensional, textural and more related to a sense of location - not specific. Music without vocals offers an open end for the creative imagination to work with. I do have a lot of artists that use my music to create a kind of opening.
Do you dabble in other art forms?
I paint a bit. I learned a style while in central Australia. An aboriginal dot painting style. The Dream Circle has my painting on the cover.
Are you a hermit, or do you have contact with the outer world?
Good question. It may sound like it. For stretches of time, that's certainly the case because of my work. The longer time without distraction, the purer the piece becomes. It's an interesting juxtaposition these days to try and keep that sense of boundary around you. I have all the modern conveniences for communication: fax, phone, email - I'm certainly no stranger to travel. I love meeting other people, cultures, countries, and all of that has fed my music. But typically when I'm home, I'm pretty solitary. Though I am touring this summer.
What kind of a process is it to recreate live, what you've accomplished in the studio?
What I aim to present live is an extension of the recorded music, that is an unfolding, unconscious to conscious emerging of sounds that you're looking for some kind of identification with. Ultimately I try to present a thoroughly focused hour and a half; almost like getting in a vehicle and going from one place to another. It's a pretty vast amount of terrain that I cover musically. I do that with heavy pre-produced sections of rhythmic ideas that have appeared on the recordings, and there's a fairly complex level of live performance and playback samples, rhythm loops and creating real time layers. It's a very interesting process to witness if everything's working in the right groove. It's like witnessing a collective dream because the music flows continuously.
Do you improvise live?
Definitely. There are recognizable elements from the recordings which are sonically gene spliced in concert. I can make spontaneous decisions about these combinations, and on top of that I can jump in with a didgeridoo or different types of percussion. It's a combination of being on the edge with the improvising spirit and having a fairly structured road map.
Is your music for background listening, or do you require full attention from the listener?
Like all music, low volume has a different effect. A lot of people underestimate the power, especially with non-rhythmic music, not playing it at fuller volume and engaging with it. Especially folks who are new to it, for whatever reason, are timid about turning up the volume.
I've been playing The Magnificent Void around the house. People don't realize it's on. It sneaks up on them until it reaches a sonic boiling point, often driving them crazy. Is it a compliment that you can elicit such a strong reaction?
Well it tells me something about the person. You hear that with any kind of music from opera to country to punk. You're going to find music that people won't jive with. People either love or hate my music.
I think your music can really get to a person emotionally. Even if it is a negative reaction, at least it's a reaction.
I absolutely agree. I've witnessed that experience. I'll put it on and see what happens. The Void is fairly dark and shadowed harmonically in passages. And the fact that there's no melody or rhythm, already disqualifies quite a few people from entering into it. I'm not doing this for acceptance. It's an inner need, a hunger. It needs to be expressed. Some people play The Void all day and night. They get it. A lot of people don't, and that's fine too.
Are you recording constantly?
It's pretty much my life: this addiction to sound. It's when the spirit moves me, and that is quite often. I might take a week off to let my ears re-align.
With technology a big part of your music, do you think you would have been a musician if you were born a couple of hundred years ago?
I'm sure I would have been a heretic of some sort - persecuted for doing something over the top.