Aural Archaeology
by Bryan Reesman, Alternative Press, October 1995


Steve Roach has mentioned how, after all copies of the limited-edition The Dream Circle were gone, he'd bury the master in the desert. I thought maybe he was kidding. "It's buried now," he tells me matter-of-factly.

Perhaps it's fitting that Roach's work will be a future artifact. A near-mythical, highly prolific figure in the electronic/ethno-ambient/trance world, he is a talented synthesist who has created or collaborated on over two dozen albums, produced a dozen others, and appeared on numerous other albums and compilations. Roach's continually evolving and distinct music mines our collective unconscious via electronics, exotic percussion, didgeridoos, and pre-Columbian, aboriginal, and Native American instruments.

"The slow fade-ins and fade-outs, the atonal dissonances mixed in with the swirling chords, the long reverb times, they're all part of his sound," describes A Produce's Barry Craig, and LA-based electronic musician who has explored trance music through ambient, ethnic, and rock-based dynamics throughout his five releases. "He's probably an influence on anyone working in the ethno-ambient genre whether they're willing to admit it or not."

Since 1981, Roach's music has progressed from sequencer pieces to the pure ambient spaces of Quiet Music to the current intense techno-tribal sounds of Artifacts and his two intriguing new collaborations, Well of Souls (Projekt) and Kiva (Fathom/Hearts of Spaces).

Steve started playing music in the late '70s, with a synthesizer being his first instrument. It was affordable, accessible, and allowed for great experimentation. He also had no musical training, drawing inspiration from his personal attunement and attraction to the desert, which started while growing up an only child in San Diego. "I spent a lot of time in the desert and mountains, exploring different states of mind. With the assistance of the right psychedelics, these types of places can give you a lot." He also actively engaged in motocross in his teens. "I spent pretty much all of my youth trying to channel the adrenaline junkie that lives inside of me. That's really what it's always been about. Music is no different, when you tap into a really powerful stream of sound."

Ironically, his earlier sequencer-driven synth albums like Empetus or Stormwarning are his least interesting because they are mainly adrenalized via computer rather than the composer. Roach better channels his physical adrenaline through the act of creating the deeply primal, electro-acoustic music on which he now focuses, which is his strength and which continues satiating his "very, very intense addiction to sound." On works like Dreamtime Return, World's Edge, and the collaborative effort (with Mexico's Jorge Reyes and Spain's Suso Saiz) Suspended Memories' Forgotten Gods (Hearts of Space, 1993), modern technology and primitive instruments coalesce powerfully.

Such albums were influenced in part by two trips to Australia in the mid 1980's, where he visited aboriginal cave art sites and learned to play the didgeridoo from longtime aboriginal musician and performer David Hudson, for whom Roach has produced two solo albums. During a later trip to Tucson around 1987, he fell in love with the Arizona desert and soon moved there from Los Angeles, his home of twelve years. Roach now resides in Tucson.

Steve's synths are easily identifiable through their "breathing," a result of experimenting with the "more organic aspects of sonic manipulation. Hearing those chords played back on some kind of infinite loop was deeply satisfying. It felt like they were not held in some kind of recorded medium but were somehow alive because of that breathing-like quality."

Naturally, his didgeridoos – aboriginal wind instruments dating back over 30,000 years – sonically mesh with his synths. "There's a very similar place in my brain that those two instruments occupy. The bridge between the years is not there for me. The didg was the state-of-the-art instrument at that time, and the synth is another instrument for us, born in our time. I find that bridge to be really inspiring to go back and forth on."

Appropriately, his home studio is titled the Time Room. "The name sprang forth from the state of mind I enter into when I go into this place. Once you're really moving into it, the sense of everyday time dissolves and the creative sense of time seems to take over." The Time Room is his "sound temple" where many artists have come to record or collaborate.

It's interesting to note the consistent archaeological references in his album titles: Artifacts. Origins. Strate. The Lost Pieces.

"Those connotations are completely metaphorical in their meaning and usage," he replies, professing a fascination for archaeology. "When I was quite young, it was one of the first professions that I considered. I remember visits to the desert, gathering rocks that seemed to have some activity going on within then, suggesting that they had been used by some cultures from a long time ago. I really enjoy finding titles that key me and the listener into aparticular labyrinth to travel within the music."

Such a labyrinth is the dark-ambient Well of Souls, a two-CD collaboration born during afterhours sessions while producing Vidna Obmana's recent solo album. "One evening we set up a combination of sounds from our systems and something happened – one of those moments where you barely get the tape in fast enough and just capture it and go. That became the title piece, which is a drifting mass of very dense, shadowed sound."

Vidna Obmana, aka Dirk Serries, has become well-known as an ambient artist with a signature sound revolving around slowly cycling synth loops. His recent recordings incorporate stronger ethno-ambient approaches, and for Serries, Souls (following the style of his recent work) is "the first two complete chapters in the process of creating music together" with Steve. Dirk says that while he and Steve like to discuss musical ideas, the actual process needs few dialogue exchanges. "We truly create through sounds as we both feel this magic which lets our music breathe."

Kiva started as a project between Roach and Michael Stearns, an artist who has recorded space music, as well as more exotic multicultural electro-acoustic albums, such as the recent The Lost World. Stearns and Roach added Albuquerque, New Mexico's Ron Sunsinger to their project, when they learned he had a similar idea of integrating Native American ritual ceremonies into his music, "Kiva being an underground ceremonial meeting place," Roach explains. "Since Ron had close ties to the Native American people, he was able to go out and capture very rare recordings of peyote and ayahuasca ceremonies. The real thing. Those pieces became the foundation for the album itself."

Roach admits he has a ritualistic approach to his studio and music, especially "certain ways I have to have the equipment set up. It's certainly obsessive, no question about it." Such obsession has evidently not bothered his musical counterparts, including Robert Rich, known for his densely sculptured trance music with exotic tribal touches. "Steve has an amazing presence, with a high level of energy and focus," says Rich. "His creativity seems to flow very easily, as does his warmth and humanity. He is also very true to himself, always refining and perfecting his sound with a rare single-mindness."

Not to say that he's a hermit. Roach wants people to hear his work. He actively promotes himself through interviews, networking, and European concerts. He was proud (and shocked) that Suspended Memories' 1994 Earth Island recently won the National Assocation of Independent Record Distributors' album of the year in, ahem, the "new age" category, with his latest solo album Artifacts also amongst the five nominees. One way in which Steve's dark, ritualistic music has been misunderstood has been the "N-word." Roach half-jokingly refrains from saying it, although he acknowledges that many of his fans listen to music in that genre and that receiving such accolades no doubt increases his visibility. Many uncategorizable artists in the electronic/electro-acoustic realm deal with such mislabeling frequently.

"This music is some type of exponentially mutating lifeform that's just growing in all these different directions," Steve declares, "and to create any kind of genre title for it is futile because it'll just be different in two weeks. Music is the ritual place that we go to in order to see a reflection into the unknown. That is what drives me to go into the studio day after day, to go in and look into the void and to see what stares back at me through the sound."



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