A Conversation with Steve Roach: Deeper into the Soundquest
by Darren Bergstein, i/e No. 1, Fall 1992
In the sky over my head, the quiet blue vista was yielding to ominous, impending forces. I was en route to Steve Roach's house in Tucson, and as the black stripes of interstate 10 gradually brought me along the outer edges of the Mount Lemon mountain range, I could see greying horizontal columns pregnant with budding rain, lightning criss-crossing the shadow below. Great white anvils rose high above the columns, and as the anvils drew themselves out on the rising, torrid air, the boiling white masses seemed to congeal and writhe, and soon, blue-grey curtains of mist descended upon the desert, already hushed and patiently waiting for the approaching rain. Thunder shook the saguaros as I rounded a rolling corner and reached Steve's oasis amidst the desert drama.
The expressiveness and dynamics of the desert and its' foreboding sky provided the perfect ambience for my meeting Steve Roach. Like his environs, Steve Roach is also expressive, and if one word describes his music, it is the same one I used above to describe the desert: dynamic. Steve Roach's music is an exercise in dynamics, in shade and contrast, in the juxtaposition of the acoustic with the electronic, in the multitude of colors and texures provoked by his vast array of keyboards and native American and Mexican instruments. Steve Roach is an electronic musician of the highest order, perhaps one of the finest working in the field today, but perhaps electronic musician is too embracing a term. The earthiness of his music, the ability to conjure sounds from technology that sound anything but technological, make for a music abundant with warmth, clarity, and above all, vision. His music perfectly captures the spirit of his influences, whether it be a quiescent southwestern mesa, or the primitive rites and ceremonial motifs of an ancient tribe of aborigines.
After we exchanged hellos, Steve guided me back into the place where his visions are brought to life, the home studio he dubs the Timeroom. It contains a most impressive collection of synthesizers, arranged in a 'u' shape where he controls all from the center. In this technological forest, a weathered didgeridu lay propped in the corner.
We soon left the silent keyboards of the Timeroom and proceeded outside to the back porch of the house. As we began talking, the sky above us broke, and the few remaining quail in the backyard sought cover before the rain hit the parched earth.
Yes, it limits it. It bothers me in the way a gnat or a fly might bother me, but after a while I just ignore it.
True, you can't worry about it too much. After all, there's not much choice where the average record store is going to be categorizing your discs. But yet...
I've always felt that I'm on the outside with the kind of musical terrain I explore. So it's nothing new. I feel like I've got further in the door because of the term, for better or for worse. Now, ultimately, the term is becoming insubstantial, rotting away, like a billboard that's been up on Sunset Boulevard for ten years. In a commercial sense, it's just about peeled off. That's how much value it has to me. Music itself will continue to evolve and different ways of presenting the music will evolve regardless of any all-inclusive name they devise. New age has always been a term that makes it tedious to describe to people when they ask what kind of music I play. I was playing music long before new age was even a term so I say that I play electronic music. And that had the same problems, because everybody immediately thought of this sterile experimental stuff that just sounded cold. That term had its' own limitations, too.
It seems like there will always be those who have to pigeonhole artists into something stiff and inhibiting, in order to simplify things for the average consumer. New age has become a name synonymous with blandness, superficiality, music lacking in originality and vigor. From a listener's point of view, your music offers a richness of many types of sensibilities and attitudes. That is really what takes it beyond world, ethnic or new age, beyond any convenient coinage.
Right. And also the fact that I've been doing music that's been so electronic extensive, bringing electronic music into all the areas you've mentioned, aiming for similar kinds of feelings. For me, the feeling of creating this ritual atmosphere has been with me from the beginning. It's what I've always played music for; to achieve this place where you can musically sort out things within the world and within yourself, and in different ways. Music provides that opportunity, which is very personal . It's preferable to me to call it 'contemporary instrumental music,' which is more descriptive and definitely a step in the right direction.
I'd like to ask you about your humble beginnings, if you will, as an electronic musician. Essentially, where did it all start? Any formal musical training, for instance?
Sure. Well...no formal training. Learned my music directly using synthesizers, self-taught. You also, of course, learn a lot from many different places and people, listening, observing. Never studied music in the formal sense or anything; it just wasn't my way. I went to a college for a while, took some music courses, and I very quickly realized that moving along at that pace, I would still be there now. It just had a laborious, slow, methodical way of moving through things, which I realized wasn't for me. Music was my path, it had all the fire and passion that...is still fueling me, still moving me. Throughout most of my life, I've been listening to music. My parents really loved music. They never played an instrument, but they played a lot of albums, lot of jazz, for example, as I was growing up. Then it became more and more special later on in life. In my teens, I locked on to much of the progressive music of the time: Yes, ELP, Caravan, PFM. I was finding imports that were coming in, then I started getting into more exotic imports, coming across Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Kraftwerk, Ashra Tempel, Popol Vuh. Electronic music became much more interesting than anything else at that point, because those bands were doing basically with music what I was hearing more and more in my own imagination, which was this sonic world, this cinematic sort of place that you could see in your mind. The music was also an externalization, to me, of feelings that seemed to be accessible to these instruments at the time, especially in acheiving a particular psychological state. I was doing a lot of meditating at the time, and changing my habits of eating, getting into this whole lifestyle at around 18 or 19, and doing... like...mushrooms, and all that sort of thing, just exploring all sorts of different states of mind...
...and that kind of music always garnered itself to that.
Yeah, it's definitely the imagery that comes from the music and the imagery that comes from the psychedelic experience that very much co-exist together. After discovering this music I felt like I was really on a quest for a very expressive state of sound, looking very, very seriously for that. I realized that I just had to play this kind of music. A friend of mine was in a rock and roll band and had this little synthesizer, and as soon as I put my fingers on the keyboard, playing with the knobs and sliders and just manipulating these sounds that was it! As soon as I heard the sound, and felt the sound, I just took off.
You've been composing for over, what, ten years?
Well, I'm 37 now, so I started with my first synth when I was 19. And then, after about a year, I was recording and making tapes of my own pieces. Then I moved to LA when I was 21, so at that point, I was devoting myself full-time in pursuit of music, although I was working at whatever jobs I could...oddjobs here and there...but music was my entire life. Nothing else was really priority except this pursuit of the sound, constantly recording and playing and being into sound in all ways, any time of the day or night.
What always fascinated me about EM was the fact that it gave people the ability to express themselves through instruments that created previously unheard-of sounds, sounds you could both devise and change. You obviously felt the same thing, so was this what really attracted you to EM? I know it's difficult to decipher how and where your muse lies, but why did you feel the need to express it through electronics?
Actually, I feel very connected to where the muse is, in terms of sound being before music. And looking at the big picture, I feel very connected to sound in a pure sense. I've always been more of a sound person, being drawn to sound, becoming, in effect, a visual painter. Although I've worked with painting and sculpture and can express myself well in those areas, it seems that sound is the most direct way into this incredibly lucid, highly connected feeling of being alive. Sound is the most visceral, immediate way of plugging into that place within yourself. Maintaining that really high, exhilirating state is what I look for in many things throughout my life. For a while I was completely into the physical sensation of racing motorcydes and the adrenaline rush that provides was really directly related to what I find in music. You find that quality in music that transcends what is known as popular music and moves into a more psychological state, into a more enhanced setting where you see someplace like this (sweeping his arm out at the numerous peaks and tumbling desert vista behind us). When you have this incredible dramatic backdrop of mountains and you can feel this force of creation, there is a sound that accompanies it that I always hear, that, even as a kid, I've felt a sonic link to. So when the instruments came along that allowed you to express and create those sounds...like painting with a new set of colors, it really hit that it was now possible to do this. I'd finally found my thing, and ever since I've experienced this inspiring feeling from one day to the next. It's a powerful emotion. I remember crying and feeling this kind of release, almost like...my God, I've found this now, it's incredible! I knew that it was very personal and very... limitless, in the truest sense.
Your relationship and attitudes towards your environment have had a real impact on what you've been doing throughout your musical evolution. In fact, your experiences upon visiting Australia dramatically emphasized themselves in both Western Spaces, and especially Dreamtime Return. Could you provide some further insight into these influences?
I think also that because of the shift from being inspired by the synth itself, of being intoxicated by the fact that this is an instrument that creates this quality and universe of sounds, to being inspired by the European electronic scene, it naturally became dearer to me after working with the instrument for a while. I grew up in the southwest, I live in the southwest. The things that influence me here are more important than the winters in West Germany. I started focusing on my own environment, and asking myself about the quality of that environment. What does it give me? What are the things that shape me? At the time, it felt like a natural progression to seek these things out. So in retrospect, and this is all part of your question, Western Spaces was a very important album in that I completely acknowledged myself and the surroundings I occupy.
That seemed to be your first real personal statement.
Yes. Now, Structures from Silence was about the whole combination of the inner world. It was really, finally, about learning how to breathe. I mean the actual act of breathing, in and out, and what breath can do. It's profound. One of the most incredible things in the world is to breathe. And I fully comprehend that on another level, I would fuse the music with that quality. So that was what led to the resolution of the world I live in, the desert, the outside. "In the Heat of Venus," and "The Breathing Stone," from Western Spaces, express the southwest and the heat. These are all impressions from my own interaction with the southwest and the desert. That's when that whole connection with Australia was awakened. Australia's always sort of been with me, it's not like it's something that was obtained at one particular point. I've always been interested in Australia and the outback, and, in a romantic sense, the idea of the outback being the ultimate faraway desert. The memories were there. Here, you grow up in the southwest and take it for granted, although as I grow older I get more and more appreciative of it, which feels great. In terms of Australia, there was an energy building there for years. I remember when I was very young I had a friend in school whose parents lived in Australia, and he would go down there occasionally and come back and tell me these stories. Even at that early stage, those stories were laying the foundation for a place that had something both intriguing and compelling and pulling me towards a more primordial sense of time. I mean, my adolescence was: I was raised in San Diego, then later on broke away from my family and moved to LA, doing my thing in pursuit of the music and the sound, the soundquest, as I call it. By just going out further, going deeper into the unknown, Australia was symbolic in a lot of ways in the search for this sound. I was working on music that was keying more and more on this idea of 'dreamtime,' whatever that concept might mean to the average person...
The whole methodology is intriguing, whether the aborigines invented it or not.
In the beginning, it wasn't even necessarily about being aware of the aboriginal dreamtime. More like how different ideas seep into your...
...the resonance of the word...
Exactly. It starts out like that. Because of the music I was doing, moving more towards finding my sound was moving closer to this aspect of what people were relating to as dreamtime. I would describe a certain piece as having a 'dreamtime' or 'atmospheric' quality, the type of piece that gives you this other sense of time and space. The music itself was dictating the kind of path I was going to take, being an externalization of the things that I am interested in, and the things that have shaped me as a human being. It's like a huge feedback loop. I remember seeing Peter Weir's film The Last Wave, a very important film in that he actually presented a more focused but still abstract enough sort of aboriginal truth. But in regard to the aspect of dreamtime and Australia, and the essence of the aborginal people...the little time I spent with them was just remarkable.
How often have you visited there?
I've been there two times. The first time I was out in remote sites where the aborigines used to be, but as things got...through evolution and through...basically, when the Europeans got to Australia that was the beginning of the end. The first time I went was as part of a documentary crew, and we went to many sites where the spirits were still there and the people were not. The second time I went out I travelled the entire continent by bus recording material for the CD Australia: Sound of the Earth.
In comparing the feelings of the aboriginal cultures with the southwest, there obviously was a power that prevailed, a power you were familiar with.
It was the fact that you could be hiking for hours and come upon this rock formation that was absolutely beautiful in itself and realize they would have felt a similar thing. Of course, 20,000 years ago they would create paintings and stories and perform initiations and have this whole movement of life happening here in a place that is nature's church. There, right there in the most holiest of places . It's not some big form that's built over you, but a feeling of spirit. Eventually in the process of building a form over the spirit, the spirit vanishes. This is what so many churches represent to me. It's an empty space, and the spirit is gone. That's why I feel that the music on Dreamtime Return is not about a romantic or an objective notion; it's about extracting the essence of the spirit in these places, and somehow translating it into sound, and music. It's not just ordinary harmonies and melodies and this Western concept of putting together the foundations of what most music in our time is based upon.
With those comments in mind, considering as well your sensibilities, and the nuance imbued in your music, see if you can do a brief description of your recordings from Now and Traveller, up to World's Edge.
Sure, which is interesting since they were both released in the same month (Now and Traveller were re-released on one CD at about the same time as World's Edge).
It's a striking juxtaposition, your very earliest recordings and your most recent recordings.
But what is consistent between all of it is a sensitivity or a sensibility to the texture, to the quality of the sound, and the emphasis on timing, a sense of things happening in a musical space. I've always felt that it's very important to have things develop, to have a certain ebb and flow to the music, where it's alive, where you're not held in place, even if it's in a completely slow motion piece like side two of Structures from Silence, or the second disc of World's Edge. There's still a pulse, a timing, if you can open yourself up to that. I feel that things happen within these expanded or macroscopic views of musical time; there's a certain life which breathes within that. Through all of my albums this sense of timing has delivered me to a new place of understanding. Whether the music or style is similar or was quite different on the next album there was still something that I brought from the previous album. For instance, with Empetus, that was clearly the end of a period. I said what I needed to say with that whole period.
However, regardless of whether your music used driving, Germanic-influenced sequencers, or a more tribal-oriented percussion, the feeling's always been active; it's never a passive music. There's a continuous sense of movement, of rhythm.
I think it sort of represents me too, this unresolved feeling that keeps me moving deeper into the soundquest. With World's Edge, the second disc is one sixty minute piece, which really demonstrates the direction that I see myself going in.
That long work, "To the Threshold of Silence," seems to encapsulate all your themes.
I know that it's definitely the kind of piece a lot of people either love or hate; they understand it or they don't. There is a kind of space that envelopes you for sixty minutes and continues to evolve over that timeframe, at the same time having a similar feel at the very beginning and at the very end. And that's the whole aspect for me, how the entire work completely distorts and plays with time in such an interesting way. This is desert music for me in the best sense.
Could you evaluate your recorded output to this point, extrapolating from the original European influence? Both Empetus and the Now/Traveller discs possess that sensibility but reflect it in your own style, your own voice.
In regard to my own personal rating system, I don't feel any regrets about any of the CDs that are out now, or any of the music that I've produced. I don't need to go back and explain anything about it in order for someone to understand it any better. When I release an album I feel I reach a certain point where I've made that statement and feel satisfied about it, enough to release it. I don't feel like I've released any music that I didn't feel satisfied with in one way or another. There are a lot of recordings in between the 'official' recordings that are still in boxs in the studio, thankfully. But I've never felt the need to release that stuff. At times you create a piece and you think this is it. Then a week later, you eclipse it and cease to care about the original; you'll actually record over the first piece. I set a level of standard for myself that I want to feel and hear in the music. It's really, again, about my own connection to the sound; if it doesn't turn me on, if it doesn't move me and ignite something over a period of time while I'm composing it, then it never makes it. I never release it.
When I think of every one of your albums right now, each is like a continuous step upward on a large staircase. You reach a step, obtain it, solidify it, and move on. There's never really a final plateau to attain, but an endless and evolving series of plateaus. With those miniplateaus in mind, could you describe for me a typical recording day?
That's not an easy one to answer because it's never typical. That's the whole thing, you know?
Well, true, you just don't wake up and say, "Today I will create great art." It's spontaneous, and frequently unrecognized.
Yes. Somedays it just happens that you go in the studio and you start with a very specific feeling in mind, a very specific picture you want to paint, and a specific sound that you want to go and try and find. Sometimes you go in with a charge, and then put the charge on tape. Other times the charge is coming to you when you're carving out the sound and as you start to create that relationship with the music you feel an energy that begins to build. It's like you're making love with the music, and there's that feedback, that thing that starts to exchange, and it pulls you deeper into the music and then at a certain point...it's alive. You can feel the energy through your hands on the keyboards and the knobs and the sliders, and the reverb. And, after you spend a long time learning the equipment you even forget how you're working it or why. You don't even realize your finger's on the knob, doing it. That's the most exciting part of tbe music, more than when the CD comes out or anything.
The point of creation.
Yes, you're feeling it on that level.
How about a rundown of the current keyboards and gear that outfit your studio?
My controller keyboard is the Korg Wavestation EX, then an EMAX 11 with 8 mg of memory plus hard drive, Oberheim Xpander, Korg M1, Yamaha SY-77, Oberheim Matrix 12. My main MIDI controller and MIDI production center is the Akai MPC 60 sampling drum machine and sequencer, and a Macintosh that I use for a library and some editing and programming, but I don't really use the Mac as my sequencer. I use the MPC60 because it's set up for me the way I like to work, in a more musical, directly intuitive way. In terms of its actual agronomic design, the MPC 60 external sequencer is designed to make music off of, quickly. It has everything you need, except for extensive editing, but you can still do any kind of editing that you need to do within reason, and for me, the whole technical thing just disappears in the process. That's important, because more often than not, you're on the trail of a creative idea, the juice is flowing, and you'll start programming a sound in that moment to fit in to the piece you're making and your equipment needs to have that kind of accessibility. You need to feel invited to work with it.
What was your most recent acquisition?
Okay, so you get the SY-77 home, you set it up, patch it in, and despite your familiarity with synths and how they work, here's a machine that you don't know. How do you get yourself 'synth-friendly,' so to speak, to try and find an expressive voice through this new addition?
If you look at the technology that's coming out, you have every form of sound synthesizing that exists analog, digital, sampling, FM, this new vector capability with the Wavestation so there's an infinite number of ways of creating sound that often lead to the same place. One thing that's really interesting that I continue to do, is when I get a synth home, I'll start programming it just to feel the connections with it, and to get a feel of how it will find its way into the rest of the orchestra.
Do you find you're using the presets, or are you automatically devising your own voices?
I always either erase all the presets, or else the Korg Wavestation, say, as soon as I got it, I listened to what was in it and maybe saved ten sounds that had potential for me to expand upon. Normally I just erase everything so that sounds useless to me are not taking up space. Ninety-nine percent of the sounds that come with these synths are basically worthless to me for the sort of music that I do. Now, nothing is a rule, but it's really important that I have sounds that have come out of my own process. Sometimes you can get a preset sound that offers a good starting point, enabling you to take it to some totally different place.
So you'll give yourself an entirely new palette to work with.
Yes, most of the time. I picked up the SY-77 primarily for its' FM aspects. I was holding out a long time on the FM sound. Elmar Schulte, of the German group Solitaire, had an SY-77, and is a major fan of that keyboard. I worked with him and the instrument a bit in Germany, and began to hear and appreciate that FM quality; mixed with the wave samples you could really do some special things. It adds a whole other texture that I can work with. After you work with each instrument for a week or so, it has a certain sound that you intuitively see fitting into the picture that you're painting. What I usually do, say with the SY-77 after I got it and modified its sounds, is I'll put 16 sounds in a multi-page and just work within those areas. It's making your own choices and passing them down through the screen again, giving yourself 16 additional choices to work with, and then accessing them through MIDI. This way, at any time I can use any of 16 different sounds. And then that's it, unless I need more specific sounds, but I try to put a range of sounds within that 16.
That seems sensible, to set up actual limitations for yourself.
You definitely need to put the limitation in there. That's why I work with an analog 8-track, which is absolutely perfect. I have no problem working with 8-track in both electronic and acoustic applications. Working with Jorge Reyes and Suso Saiz on our recent project...they came in and didn't know what to expect. They saw my ,'home studio,' complete with 8-track, and at the outset they were wondering what was going to happen in here. They both were a little bit concerned about how we were going to do this album with only 8 tracks...
They were probably used to 16 and 24.
Yeah, like Jorge goes into Polygram studios in Mexico City with the engineers, and I have a whole other concept worked out that seems so different to a lot of musicians operating out of big studios. The three of us set up in my studio and we were playing live together, Jorge sitting on the floor with all his percussion, two stereo mikes set up, and we were just doing it, like the good old days. We captured a feeling, really captured it, words and all. And if there's a little bit of sound, like if the chair squeaks when it turns, big deal, you know? It's just part of the...it puts air into the track. On the new album with Jorge and Suso what's most exciting is that there's a lot of air in the room, there's breathing and movement. There's stuff going on in the track that normally doens't exist in EM; it's usually a sterile environment. Everything is boasted as completely antiseptic and dirt-free, like those places where they make CDs. I'm not interested in that at all.
You used the word 'organic' before, which describes the effect you're after very well.
Yes, in the process and recording. My whole technique, when I produce and mix an album, is about getting a natural sound onto the master tape. If that means that the sound I'm mixing has a graininess to it, that's fine. But in getting the sound across, imperfections are welcome.
That seems to lay to rest the argument that people always have about EM, that it's cold, that it has no human element to it.
The fact that there are strange shapes that the sound is reflecting off of in the studio when we're recording Jorge's pots...for example, in a breakdown of one piece, we would be working together live, Jorge on percussion, Suso playing guitar, and myself playing synths and we're listening through the speakers, getting the energy going. And as soon as we feel like we've gotten it to this level we'll stop for a moment, and I'll set up the 8-track, or have it ready when we started, and then send over my basic synth tracks to it, and roll the tape back immediately, put the headphones on Jorge, hit record and play, and then just keep doing it, that fast. So like the pieces I played for you earlier, once we got the ball rolling, it didn't take much longer to produce high quality, recorded pieces. Jorge just plays; he doesn't require a lot of changes.
You were talking about mixing before. How much more is there yet to do after this process?
With the 8-track, that's divided into four different sub-mixes, and you have stereo tracks and mono tracks, EQ levels and additional reverb, so there is still a world of things that can be done to get all that to work together. Usually, you just print the reverb right onto the two tracks, that way when you mix it in a week...a lot of times the reverb is vital to the feeling of the moment when you first recorded it. And if you don't get exactly the same reverb setting in terms of EQ level right, then it changes the character of the piece. That's why I always try to record everything exactly as I hear it.
Everybody has been smitten with digital technology, in all of its' ever-changing configurations. How do you feel about the constant debate between analog versus digital? You still love the analog sounds, but you get just as sweeping, vivid effects from your digital gear.
I've been excited about them both. I'm getting more involved in the sampling world, but if I didn't have my analog synths I would probably feel lost in the studio. I need those analog sounds, the feeling of carving out the sound in a basic, hands-on, raw sense. I'll often take sounds from the Xpander and sample them down into the Emax so they can coexist together.
The nuance you're expressing through the music, that is the most difficult thing to acheive in trying to bring out the images that inspire you, and yet you manage to sidestep the 'cold' angles of the technology and evoke those images entirely.
From Western Spaces, to Dreamtime Return on, I feel that I can never catch up with myself in terms of the evocative imprint that is inhabiting these places within me. There's just so many things that I'm feeling, that come through at different times, that I need to express.
I'm very interested in knowing about your collaborations. Was Western Spaces the first actual collaborative effort?
Western Spaces was the first album that was a collaboration with other artists, but all the way along, from Now on, I have worked with other artists. Collaboration has always been something that's been important to me. Working with other people is how I've learned to grow. It's something absolutely vital that I acknowledge. I've learned some tremendous things from some very special people.
I'm referring specifically to albums that have been done exclusively with other musicians.
Well, to go back a moment...I knew Richard Burmer and Kevin Braheny and Chuck Oken, percussionist for Djam Karet, who played on some of my albums. This was before CDs were out. Structures from Silence was the most obvious album to be released on CD and the record company was a little slow on the uptake, ultimately releasing it a year or so later. So the concept of the CD was exciting, while at the same time I'd been playing with these ideas based on the southwest. I called up Richard, who had already been recording and had an album out by then. Now to me, the best collaborations are the ones where your main objective in the project is the music, what's occurring in the speakers...
How do you feel the Western Spaces sessions went?
They weren't like the collaborations you would normally think of. Richard is more cloistered in his studio, and not so open to working in the same room together. The idea was that we would each do a piece together, which is how that album worked the best because of the general nature of the different people involved. Kevin and I worked together, I did a piece with Thom Brennan. As a group, we did the title track. That was the beginning of the collaborative projects.
How about The Leaving Time, which was a progenitor of a lot of the things you've been doing over the past couple of years. It has a really tribal, dreamy sound.
It's a powerful album, I think. And it's too bad it fell through the cracks at RCA.
David Torn's guitar lends a languid kind of air to it, too.
That was a big step forward in my music, one in a more diverse, electronic-based mould. I'd been talking to Michael for a little bit because he and I were both on Fortuna at that time, so we finally got together. I flew him out to work on Dreamtime Return; I had some pieces I wanted him to play percussion on and actually what we started doing was other music not connected to the album. We just started to play at one point, improvising, firing up the machines and playing off our common experiences, bringing them together. He came out on a Friday and by Sunday we had at least three pieces: "Big Sky," "March of Honor," and "The Leaving Time." We began to realize, hey there's something happening here. He was going to leave on Sunday; he ended up staying two more weeks and we did all of the basic tracks in my studio in Venice, California the time. Then in the middle of those sessions, Jonas Hellborg came along. He'd been on tour with John McLaughlin. Michael knew Jonas and he talked to him and somehow Jonas called Michael's home in New York, found out he was in California, called Michael at my house and Michael said, we're doing this album, why don't you come over? We picked him up at the airport, brought him over, rolled the tape he played bass and in about 15 minutes it was over and we went to dinner. That was the last time I saw him. So then we were listening to the tracks after they were all done, and we felt the music was really lending itself to...it had more of a rock feel, transposed into the textural electronic sound that I work in. And I did a lot of the drum programming as well on the album; the basic drums on "The Leaving Time..."
Really? Even with Michael there?
Sure. Actually, I had already recorded the chords and the basic DMX drum machine stuff onto digital 2-track. I brought that piece to the studio in New York so we didn't even work on that the two weeks we were together. Michael was playing keyboards too, as on "Theme for the Far Away," which contained mostly his ideas. There was a lot of sharing. The best collaborations formed were the ones with Robert Rich, and Michael, where the boundaries between everyone are eliminated. I mean, Michael is a percussionist and drummer but that doesn't mean that's all he does. With Robert Rich, the mistake a lot of people make is that he does all the percussion and I do all of the electronics.
A true melding of abilities exist where you can't distinguish who plays what instruments.
There's a spirit that comes through when you're together that's why you work together. It's a synergistic thing wherein you wouldn't normally think or operate the same way if you worked solo. You might play all the same synths but there's a different music that comes out of them, which is a testament to the spirit you bring out in each other. Now with Jorge and Suso, to me that is more of an album where you can hear that Jorge's playing percussion, Suso's playing guitar, and I'm playing electronic percussion and synth. Sometimes, Suso's sound blends into mine so well...that's what is so magical.
Going back to The Leaving Time for a moment, did David Torn sort of come in at the eleventh hour?
Michael and I thought that what would really top off the album would be an incredible guitarist, one with a guitar sound right on the edge. And we both knew of David Torn. I had just seen him play a solo concert in LA; he was doing his tape loops, Mark Isham sat in. What they did together was very cool. I met David after the show, we had a nice little talk, and that was it. Michael had just caught David's show at the Bottom Line in New York. So we independently had both met up with him and decided to give him a call. We sent him a tape, he listened to it and contacted us and just said, 'I'll be there." That's the way he is. And I was leaving for Australia for the first time two weeks later, so that's where the title The Leaving Time came from. Even better- I'm in Australia, having a totally incredible time, and then I call back to LA and find out I've got a deal for the album from RCA, waiting for me when I get back. So I'm back from Australia for a week, I barely catch my breath, then I fly to New York to meet with Michael and we drive up to Milbrook, in upstate New York. For two weeks we were in this studio that was built into a barn. David lives in Woodstock, so he drove over from there and stayed four days, basically laying down all his tracks in that time. After we had recorded everything either to 2-track digital or onto 8-track in my studio, we then transferred all of that onto 24-track. Some pieces, like "March of Honor" and "Big Sky" could have been done complete on an 8-track as well; we put them onto 24 to keep the sound quality consistent. Then we added the percussion and David did most of his guitar parts, building and weaving over them while the tapes were running.
Of all your work with other musicians, Thc Leaving Time has a distinctiveness that sets it apart from the others.
It was a big stretch for me, too. It was really an honor to work with those guys.
You've spoken of the new album coming out with Jorge Reyes and Suso Saiz. What is Susos' background?
I don't know a great deal about him, except that he's quite well-known in Spain as a guitarist and producer. He has a number of CDs out, one of which, called Symbiosis, is very nice. He's really this cybertronic guitarist. He has this sound that is very electronic and angular, yet quite warm, kind of with an ECM feel. I wouldn't compare him to Torn, or BIll Frisell, but it's in that world; like Terje Rypdal say, he has that fluid kind of sound that gets right into the middle part of your body and turns. And he can let it loose with power chords and wild distortion, too.
How did such a unique merging come about? Was it a chancy kind of thing?
Totally chancy. It was that way with Michael too. You see an opportunity starting to form and you either step right into it and grab it, or you don't and it's going to be lost.
Did you chance upon meeting Jorge and Suso while touring in Spain?
I was playing in the Canary Islands in January of 1991. I had heard of Jorge and his music but I'd never heard of Suso. They were both playing at this festival. A musician from Germany, Gerd Bessler, was supposed to be there but because of the Gulf War...it had just started two days before. Hell, we were flying right into that thing! It was very intense. So we finally arrive there, and we find out Gerd couldn't get out of the airport in Germany so we had to fill in his night and play a 'walk-the-plank' improv session in his place. Robert Rich was also there, as well as Stephen Micus. I had an excellent rapport with Jorge and Suso, and after the show, Jorge said that he wanted to talk to me about playing in a volcanic crater in Mexico City. Soon we're in this crater, an incredible place. They had built a huge stage, brought lighting and electrical power in from half a mile away. They put laser mirrors in a circle all around the crater, along with a laser-cannon, water-cooled. Jorge's already performed here twenty times! It's amazing, these people are completely into it. I mean.. Mexico City...!
You wouldn't think that kind of scene existed there.
Mexico City opened my eyes to what's going on inside Mexico itself.
Unfortunately, as Americans we have a tendency to be very egocentric in our perception of the rest of the world. The US is such a melting pot of cultures that we think we have everything. But go to another country Spain, Germany, France and you suddenly see this huge diversity of talent and people.
Absolutely. That's the stuff that you bring back to the music, and it enrichs your views and your life. Having the opportunity to work with Jorge and Suso...we first played three concerts in Guatalajara at the university, which was fantastic, meeting all these people there. And then we went to Mexico City, where we played the festival.
Did you find people in Spain who were familiar with your music?
Oh yes. I have a strong identity in Spain; they have a great distributor there. Spanish television came to my home in Tucson, and did a half hour program, filming me in the studio and interviewing me out in the desert. In fact, Stormwarning has been released in Spain with a new track added to it. This guy that licensed it for release, Angel Romero, he's really been into the progressive stuff for years.
Is there anybody you would like to work with in the future?
Hmm...Steve Tibbets. And Glen Velez. I respect their work tremendously. Those sort of partnerships would be really exciting.
You've been with Fortuna and Hearts of Space for some time now. What brought about those affiliations?
The relationship with those two companies really makes sense because I've known the people that started them from the beginning. I knew Stephen Hill before Hearts of Space was a record label and Ethan Edgecombe...actually Stephen introduced me to Ethan, to enable him to release Structures from Silence on Fortuna. That's how I got into Fortuna Records, through Hearts of Space. Stephen, who did not have a label at that time, was unable to put out the album himself, and recommended Ethan. Later, he went on to form Hearts of Space and so I did some albums for them.
It doesn't hurt that Fortuna's local, either.
That's part of the reason that I ended up in Tucson. They had brought me out for the Dreamtime Return tour to visit, and I fell in love with Tucson the first day I was here.
How much control do you have on rereleases of your material? For instance, who orchestrated the reissue of Now and Traveller ?
That came from the owner of Celestial Harmonies Fortuna's manufacturer Eckart Rahn, at his request. He wanted to reissue it.
Would you have seen to it yourself that those records were released on disc?
I was pushing for it on CD. Celestial Harmonies has the license for it. For them, it's to their advantage. It's either deleted from the catalogue or put out on CD. Eckart felt it was worthy enough to put on disc, and I'm certainly happy about that. I was getting letters regularly, constantly, from people wanting those two albums on CD.
Especially since CDs have become so pervasive in the way we now listen to music...
...and electronic music is the one medium that lends itself perfectly to the CD format.
"To the Threshold of Silence" would have been impossible six years ago. I never would have created that piece before. Being one sixty minute work, one sixty minute mix, it was unbelievably complex to keep the thing flowing, keep the noise levels down, all the things that you consider in a shorter piece you have to reconsider and readjust for a longer work. But also one of the outcomes was that I knew I had this perfect medium to present...
...the form of the song itself never would have suited an LP format.
Oh, it just couldn't have worked. "Structures from Silence" was thirty minutes long, and it has a lot of space in it, and the LP was a really compromised format for it. That's why the tape sold more than the LP. People would rather have the tape, without the background noises and the pops and clicks.
Seeing you perform the World's Edge album live, in May, was a totally involving, altogether invigorating experience. Listening to the various pieces, enhanced by your use of assistants on percussive accompaniment, brought an fresh perspective to them. What are your feelings regarding performing live, presenting your work in this fashion, as opposed to just the recorded document?
I always look at the live setting as a completely alternative list of priorities. It's not about entertainment in the typical sense. It's not about going to see an entertainer. It's about going to have an experience with the sound, with the music. It's about hearing the sound in a large open place at a certain volume level and with a power that you don't have at home. I compare it to watching a nineteen inch presentation of Dances with Wolves at home against seeing it in a theatre with 70mm and THX sound. The delivery of the sound system is absolutely crucial. The fact that I'm up there, becoming physically involved with the music playing percussion and didjeridu helps the audience; it's more a method of presenting my music to them as I intended it to be. It becomes dearer when I'm playing one of the clay waterpots, or blowing on the didjeridu, that there's a more obvious correlation between this awesome sound coming from a bank of synths and a little tiny movement of a hand on a pot.
Do you enjoy the whole rigor of touring?
Oh yeah, and I feel it's absolutely important. Working on an album in a studio, over time, you know when the CD is released there's no explanation necessary. You can't write enough liner notes to explain why something worked or why it didn't. It either happens or it doesn't. So when you work on the album and put all these different things into it, you release it in the truest sense of the word. You let it go. You hope for the best and start on the next one. At the same time, going out and doing concerts is vital to shaping the music. There's no question that it gets physically tiring. Sometimes I really have to push to break through the inertia of the perpetual set-ups, all the gear you're moving. And it's not just playing tapes back. Everything is live whether it's sequenced or not. Sequencers are controlling the parts, electrons are moving, the sound is flowing. You can put your hands in, manipulate it and change it. Most people don't understand the difference between a backing tape and a sequencer. To me, it's the oxide experience and the electrons firing out of those machines, bringing a different quality of dimensional intensity to the sound. I had people come up to me after the Tucson concert and...it's interesting because a lot of people have never seen this music played live. They had no context to put it in. That's why the percussion helps to bridge the gap between the abstract and the image of a guy standing behind a rack of keyboards, twisting knobs, moving a bit but primarily locked into flying this craft that's taking you through all these visual landscapes.
Did you feel that most of the audience at the Tucson show understood the abstract, the subtleties of what you were conveying?
Yes, from the questioning of friends that were there, and from people that have not heard this music live and don't know my music. The thing that was interesting about the Tucson concert was that a lot of people came who knew me as a person, but don't know my music. It was a little bit frightening because you know you're going to be judged on some other level, and how they relate to music is through their own point of reference. Since they lack a point of reference for this type of music, what are they going to do with it? They'll either shut down and freak out, not letting it in, or else they're going to be into it completely.
Perhaps individual tastes are changing and adapting.
Those staying all through my shows are opening up. It's partially due to the aspect that I'm using ideas that are essentially timeless alongside the rituallike presentation of the music itself. The whole blending of the organic with the electronic, and the fact that I'm moving between the two throughout the concert in a pretty seamless way starts to, I think, indirectly and subconsciously present the fact that this isn't as different as it seems. Twenty years from now, these instruments will appear as primitive as the didjeridu. Already the Oberheim gear is primitive. It's still too abstract for people who don't work with it all the time, but the didjeridu and the Oberheim share common elements in what they create. It's a real fine line.
The didjeridu makes a truly unique sound. Do you prefer getting that kind of sound yourself naturally when you can literally sample the exact same sound and synthesize/manipulate it accordingly?
I do sample it, but like you heard at the concert, I was screaming through it, breathing through it, making these incredibly projected primal sounds that are coming right out of my lungs, right out of my stomach. There's nothing that can replace that. You can sample it, you can do it that way. But the idea is to put the two together where it sounds more powerful and more visceral. But there's levels of control where you can...I can play the didjeridu into the sampler and adjust it down two octaves and get this drone from the beginning of time, then solo over it. But getting the true naturalism of an instrument like the didjeridu nothing can ever reproduce that feel.
Aside from Dreamtime Return, what would you say would be pivotal points in your career?
Structures From Silence was a strong shift in direction, based on what many people were seeing in my music at the time, such as the sequencer-based stuff, and the more rhythmic, electronic-oriented pieces. It assumed that breathing quality, which I was talking about earlier, the more romantic aspect of it, reflected internally. Still, there were sequencers used in that but they were used in a more pastoral setting. Thinking about these shifts in direction, that was as important an album as Dreamtime Return was. World's Edge has been a critical album in a transitional way, as it is leading me into new areas, such as the new album with Robert Rich and especially Jorge and Suso.
Could you tell me what the title of the Jorge/Suso album will be?
Suspended Memories, Forgotten Gods.
That's your group moniker, correct?
Yes. There's a lot happening in the record, and the title powerfully conveys what we're saying. Just having that title emphasized on the cover instead of a bunch of names will be nice for a change.
What's due to come out in the future from you besides the aforementioned projects?
The compilation Across This Grey Land, #3 contains a piece of mine that I played at the Tucson concert. Other than that, I'm always in the studio, working on bits of things, programming and sampling. I'm continuously working and building towards the next project. Of course, there's the new CD with Robert Rich, called Soma, in September, and then the Suspended Memories, Forgotten Gods CD next February. I'll also be performing in Mexico City, along with a tour of Germany, in October. I'm also excited about a project I'll be working on with Elmar Schulte while I'm in Germany. Probably in late 1993 I might release a new solo album.
Might it be too trite a question to ask which of your recordings you like best, or are most satisfied with?
I'm usually pretty satisfied with...if I work on an album a long time, I usually feel, well, this is good, I'm happy with this, now it's time to move on...
They're all your children, you love them equally. You've got to let them go, and let them grow.
That's kind of how I look at it. Music is like a child you create, spending time with it and giving it all the love that you have, and then letting it go into the world and seeing what it brings back to you. That's really exciting, what it brings back to you.