by Gary Andrews, Sequences 17
GARY ANDREWS: Let us start at the present. You recently had a new album out entitled THE MAGNIFICENT VOID. Can you tell us about this project?
STEVE ROACH: THE MAGNIFICENT VOID is a very important album for me since it's quite a dramatic step away from the heavy rhythmic, atmospheric combined sound that I've been developing since DREAMTIME RETURN. On the VOID, I'm really going wholeheartedly into the atmospheric harmonic side of my world, putting that in the forefront. But this album could not have been created without having gone down the roads I've travelled with all the other recordings. Although I will continue to work in that rhythmic style, I really felt like a lot of the atmospheric worlds that were equally important to those albums were getting pushed to the back more and more. It was time to strip it all back down to focus on the subtley and the magic that happens within those purely harmonic realms.
G.A. You have left the tribal rhythms behind on THE MAGNIFICENT VOID. Is this a temporary stop or will we see more albums like ORIGINS and ARTIFACTS in the future?
S.R. I really enjoy working in the world that I inhabited in ARTIFACTS and ORIGINS and Suspended Memories. I feel there are an infinite number of possibilities to keep exploring in that way. Most people don't realize that I was working on THE MAGNIFICENT VOID for nearly four years alongside these other recordings, so it's not always the case where one album represents a particular distinct stop in time where you drop everything and start a new concept and direction, then pick up another one. A lot of times, these recordings are being created simultaneously. I have unreleased, rhythmic pieces that were being created alongside my primary work on THE MAGNIFICENT VOID that will come out later on any number of projects. I start up a lot of different fires, depending upon the feeling of the week or the day or the moment. It's just a natural, organic, flow of imagination that continues to evolve and change. That's what I love about living this life of music. Many times the music is almost like a teacher, the things that you learn about yourself and where the music can take you shouldn't always be directed by some self-imposed intellectual concept of what you think you should be doing for a particular album.
G.A. The SUSPENDED MEMORIES albums have proved to be very popular and successful. Can you relate in detail the way you, Jorge Reyes, and Suso Saiz were thrust into the spotlight at the music festival held in the Canary Islands back in 1991?
S.R. Robert Rich and I were asked to play a duo concert at a week-long festival on Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. This was the same week that the Gulf War had started. The first night of the festival, Gerd Bessler, a German musician, was set to play, but he was unable to fly out of his country because of the high security. So the promoter asked the musicians that had made it to the island if we'd like to work as an improvisational group that evening. We had not met each other up to that point, though I had heard the music of some of the people there, including Jorge Reyes and Stephen Micus. But I hadn't heard Suso's music before. So that afternoon about five o'clock, we all met in one of the hotel rooms and talked about the possibilities. It was Robert Rich, Jorge, Suso, Stephen Micus and Guo Yue from the Real World label. Then we met at the theatre and just reacted to each other spontaneously, and that's where the magic started. I remember being at the keyboards and Suso playing guitar, and we were looking at each other and we couldn't tell who was playing what. I would lift my hands away and the sound that I thought I was playing was continuing on through Suso. The same thing would happen to him. Then the rhythmic aspect Jorge and the kind of psychological space that we all moved into was absolutely familar between us.
After that concert, we had fun talking and getting to know each other during the rest of the week. Then Jorge invited me to some concerts in Mexico at some real dramatic, powerful places, one of which was a volcanic crater where they had built a temporary stage into this huge, circular flow of lava that had solidified into these waves of rock. That was about nine months later, yet it seemed like we just continued the whole feeling that we had in Lanzarote without skipping a heartbeat. Suso was there too. We did some concerts in Guadalajara as well. That was in November. Then to keep the momentum going, in February Jorge and Suso flew to my house in Tucson, and in one week, we recorded the first SUSPENDED MEMORIES album at my home studio. From that point on, we continued to do some concerts and recorded the second album in between concerts during a tour of Spain and Germany.
G.A. Will there be more Suspended Memories albums?
S.R. That's an open question right now. We certainly are in touch, but it's sporadic because we're in three different countries on two continents. I feel like we're kind of in this huge orbit, and we're moving in relationship to each other, but it's hard to all converge in the same place at the same time. We're working on our own projects, sending them to each other and appreciating the places we're going on our own. But the fact that it has to be a special set of circumstances to bring us together, like a tour or festival, is what brings that incredible feeling to the music of Suspended Memories because when we get together, we're completely on the edge, concentrating a tremendous amount of creative energy into a short period of time, knowing that every moment really counts. Then we're all off to our own worlds again before we've even had time to consciously process what it was like to be in the same room working together. Most of our meetings are financed because a tour or festival brought us together, and then we've taken advantage of any time left in between to make an album, working pretty much non-stop.
G.A. You appear, judging by the numerous collaborations you are involved with, to get immense satisfaction from working with musicians from all around the world. Don't you sometimes worry that your own personal musical evolution and ideas may get left in the background working on such albums?
S.R. Collaborations continue to expand my horizons within the musical world that I'm working. As I mentioned earlier, I'm usually working on other projects simultaneously, so it's not a linear concept of working with these guys and then some other musicians and then starting some solo album after that. The collaborative world is something very important for synth-based artists who can find themselves easily cloistered into the safety of their home studio. So it's really important to interact and take chances musically with other people. If you think about it, would you find it necessary to ask the same question of a jazz artist who may appear on a number of albums as a sideman or group member in addition to leader of his own band? Did John Coltrane lose his individuality by playing with Miles Davis, or did he enhance his flexibility and strengthen his own vision in the process? Nobody can claim to be the absolute creator of their own style. Your approach to your art form comes from the way you perceive everything around you, all the influences and all the richness that you expose to yourself. If you limit your exposure to other viewpoints, the music can become quite static. The idea with the groups or duos is each artist has an individual approach or unique feeling that he brings to the session, and though each individual can be heard within that setting, you can feel the group being taken to a whole new level because of the power of everyone joining together and travelling own musical pathways they probably never would have thought to traverse alone. On the other hand, there has to be some affinity between the individuals to begin with. All the collaborations that I find myself in are with kindred spirits, people that I feel very close to musically and spiritually; otherwise it doesn't happen. So you feed each other, and that's what continues to evolve an art form, this kind of cross-fertillization between similar yet distinct personalities. It's not about the ownership of a particular sound.
G.A. How do you compose your music? Is there a clear distiction between your "spacial synth music" and the more tribal-ambient work?
S.R. They're absolutely connected. Sometimes a purely floating piece will start to call in a more driving rhythmic element. Other times, the intensity builds so high with the rhythmic side that as a completley strange and appropiate thing to do in the moment, I'll pull all the rhythms out and see where I'm at to get some perspective on it. If you think about it, on ORIGINS and ARTIFACTS, there are always a couple of pieces without rhythms. I just feel that all these pieces are somehow connected to each other. It's just that at various times, you're tuning into a different frequency of this sound current that I'm so obsessed with. At different frequencies within that sound current, rhythm becomes more important to the body of the piece and to the kind of feeling that I want to evoke. Even with the atmospheric pieces, there's still a pulse within that music; there's still a subtle rhythm in the breathing of the chords and the way they flow together. Especially on THE MAGNIFICENT VOID, there's a kind of breathing, living pulse that evolves and changes over a long period of time, and I think this is something that people can overlook in the beginning.
G.A. An important question I feel: Looking back at your 1988 release DREAMTIME RETURN, this album and the background work in Northern Australia obviously sparked off an interest of powerful feelings concerning the Aborginal culture. This in turn surfaced naturally in the music. Working with the Aboriginal didgeridoo player David Hudson has played an important part in your music even down to playing the didge yourself, which has helped shape the Steve Roach / ethnic-ambient sound. Can you explain this interest, not just with the Aborginal culture but also more recently with Native Americans as well?
S.R. This is a complex question, but a very important one of course. Ever since I can remember, I've been fascinated with cultures and individuals from another time and another place, the things they've left behind like broken pieces from a puzzle. The incredible memories that we potentially hold within ourselves are awakened when we encounter people in the twentieth century who still live some semblance of a hunter-gatherer type of lifestyle. When I think of my various travels through Australia, being at ancient rock art sites, I can feel myself travelling through time and receiving some powerful information. It's information that I can't speak about, can't put into words. That's why I've chosen a medium such as music to translate it through.
One can easily romanticize these cultures from a distance, but I wasn't so inclined to do that because ultimately it was the land itself that inspired me first. Australia as a continent has always held great mystery for me and some kind of calling that was there for a long time. It was the culimination of many years of dreaming to actually go there. It just really felt like I was going home in some way. I'm drawn to Aboriginal mythology because it is tied very closely to the geography and feeling of the land itself, and the didgeridoo because it is an ancient form of expression that I associate with the sound of the Earth.
I appreciate cultures that have managed to stay close to the Earth rather than become alienated from it through civilization. Through my own experiences in southwestern desert regions and my travels in the Australian outback, I feel an affinity with these people, but it's not a wishing I was an Aboriginal kind of thing. My interests are about being connected to geographically empowered spots. The desert as a metaphor is a kind of place that I draw a great deal of inspiration and energy from, probably more than any particular collaborative process with anyone. The foundation of it all comes from constantly putting myself into these vast, expansive spaces. The deep, silent place you can get to in the desert is something I haven't found anywhere else.
So the land is the primary inspiration because of where it takes me psychologically, because it's so far removed from eccentricities and imbalances of civilization as we know it. My music is a result of those experiences, a way of sharing them with others and a way of reliving them myself. Just as I would collaborate with Jorge and Suso because I felt an affinity with their music, I am influenced by the music of those cultures which have long been connected to landscapes that inspire me.
I've actually been very reluctant to move into this Native American world as far as referring to it specifically in my music or in the concepts of my albums. For one thing, living in the Southwest, it's such a cliche. Everywhere you look you see Native American this and that. It's been co-opted to the point where it's really kind of sickening and kind of empty for me. I have tremendous respect for these people to the point of waiting for the right circumstance in which to include it in my own creative process. KIVA was my first adventure in drawing from Native American mythology and culture. I accepted the invitation to be a part of this project because of Ron Sunsinger's extensive work with the recordings of Native American and South American ceremonies that he had gone out on the edge to get through the trust he had gained in working with these communities. It seemed like this was the kind of project that I could really get involved with at the level it had to be for me to feel good about it. There's a glut of Native American concept albums out over here in the U.S. But this album is really about altered states, about convening with the spirit world through some very serious, very intense ceremonial activities. Consequentlly, the album is seen as too far-out for a lot of people because of the intensity of the kinds of states of mind that we wanted to create musically, and that we went into ourselves. And actually, the fourth and final piece doesn't use any source recordings or snatches of traditional ceremonies. The three of us went into this cave and recorded spontaneous musical visions for three days under the influence of that underground space and the instruments themselves. Again we were there to access our own ancestral memories and draw on that.
There aren't any nice, relaxing little arrangements of Native American tunes on KIVA. We were dealing with the awakening of the unconscious through shamanic practices. The role of music as a psychedelic agent in these traditional cultures is something I feel an affinity with. I'm not interested in trying to recreate the lifestyle of Native American or Aboriginal cultures. I'm very happy with my life the way it is, but a part of my life involves accessing those primeval parts of the human soul that exist in all of us. Some of these cultures have retained ancient methods for making that connection, and I'm interested in learning from them and also comparing their methods with my own.
G.A. On your limited edition release THE DREAM CIRCLE, you provided the artwork, which if I am not mistaken pays homage to the Aborginal dot paintings. It probably is obvious that you appreciate the visual arts. Can you elaborate on this?
S.R. Alongside my adventures in Australia and translating many aspects of the culture and the land, I felt an affinity with the dot paintings because they are clearly musical to me when I look at them. In reality, they express a kind of topographical map of a specific area with the various symbols referring to different land features as well as the roles of the people who live and hunt on that land. Quite often they are of dreaming places, places of great power that the land holds. I collected some of those paintings in my travels, but my decision to paint in this style myself didn't happen out of context. I didn't sit down and make a dot painting one day. Actually, I had made a didgeridoo with David Hudson while I was in Australia. We went out into the bush and found a eucalyptus branch that had been hollowed out by termites, came back to David's place and finished it up there. The only thing left to do was paint the thing. I really didn't know what kind of imagery I wanted to put on it for the longest time. Then I had some powerful breakthroughs in playing it when I went back home to Tucson. One afternoon this black and yellow snake came through the backyard as I was playing it, and it just seemed to reveal itself as being my first official translation of a really special moment onto the didge. So I did this dot painting of the snake curling around the didge with some other symbolic patterns. From there I went on and continued to paint whenever time and inspiration allowed. The dot painting I did for THE DREAM CIRCLE was one of those I made out in the desert in Tucson as a form of personal expression in a visual rather than a sonic mode. It's a great meditation to do that kind of work sitting out in the sun.
G.A. Was the music on THE DREAM CIRCLE especially composed as a limited-edition release?
S.R. Originally the music for THE DREAM CIRCLE was a sound environment I created to be heard while people were waiting for one of my concerts to begin. In its earlier versions I would let it play for forty-five minutes or a half-an-hour before a concert, and then between the first and second sets, and maybe even as people were leaving the auditorium at the end. So it was this underlying feeling that the music from the concert would emerge from and return to. Then people starting asking me if the music was available on CD, and that's what gave me the idea of putting it in. It took a while to find the time to take it to the next level, but I really wanted to do something special with the piece because the audience response was so strong to it. So I took the original half-hour foundation of the track and reworked it and extended it to a seventy-four-minute piece. I actually spent a great deal of time on it. The techniques I had to develop to create a continuous mix were pretty complex for what seems like a flowing, simpler type of piece. There's a great deal of subtlety woven into it, very much like a dot painting. When you first see a dot painting, there's an overall impression you're receiving from it, the kind of vibration of the dots and the colors and forms. Then as you go deeper into it, you can get lost in different aspects of the dot painting and travel through the landscape in the same way you can travel through the landscape within THE DREAM CIRCLE. It seems to change its form, even for me listening back to it right now. The limited edition-concept will continue, and I hope to do another one in the next year or so.
G.A. As well as your own albums, you have produced other artists as diverse as David Hudson's didgeridoo releases, various electronic / space music and even the African percussion work of the group Takadja. As a producer what elements do you give these artists in their music?
S.R. I think the kind of environment and the kind of support that I bring to them creates a nurturing, comfortable space to work within. With the electronic artists, there's clearly an understanding they know I have of the medium.
David Hudson is someone I heard in Australia before the didgeridoo was the instrument-of-the-month. It wasn't popular or understood. Most people didn't even know what it was, let alone that there was some guy playing it at a level of skill that was mind-blowing. So with David, the idea of recording him was a completley different story. It was a matter of convincing him that such a project was worthwhile because he didn't think anybody would want to hear a solemn didge album. He wasn't aware of my music at all or where I was coming from as a producer or as a recording artist. Only later on after we had worked together, did he start to realize what it was that I was doing, and he actually became more interested in the concept of electro-acoustic music.
At the time of WOOLUNDA, David was more interested in recording in a kind of country music influenced style in which the didge might fit in as a bit of Australian flavour on a tune here or there. In fact, when he was visiting me in Tucson, we'd be driving around the desert and he and his wife would be singing country songs in two part harmony. This may sound strange to people who don't really know him, but David grew up on a cattle ranch at a time when his Aboriginal roots were downplayed. He has talked about his parents' generation getting punished for speaking their own language or practicing their traditional rituals and ways of life. I think it was an important act of courage for him to be one of the founders of an Aborginal dance troupe that travelled the world presenting their traditional culture in a accessible format. But when I suggested he record some solo didge, this was not a theatrical or accessible way of approaching his routes. I was asking him to let the instrument speak for itself in a context that would allow him to explore his own artistic impulses, and he really was skeptical about there even being an audience for this sort of thing. He didn't think that the Western world was interested in hearing somebody blow through a tree branch for an hour, no matter how good he was at it. So in that setting, I helped to bring the best parts of David out, distill them, and present them in a way that was like a journey, but at the same time the instrument. Of course, now there has been an explosion of interest in the didge, and David has since developed his own personal style to a whole new level far surpassing the initial, rather tentative steps he took on WOOLUNDA. He's playing solo didge concerts now and doing lectures, etc. It's amazing to watch it all happen.
So I think in all settings, whether people already know and respect what I do or have no idea where I'm coming from, I realize they need some guidance or assistance, and I try to be open and neutral in terms of bringing out the best part of their sound. I try to create an atmosphere in which they feel safe and supported in trying to let their deeper, more original artistic impulses come through. I think a large part of the magic in these sessions is not coming in with a lot of preconceptions and just coming from being open to the moment. This is the attitude I try to maintain whether I'm acting as a producer or collaborator or guest musician.
G.A. With a mail-order / information sevice now running, is the operation going to plan?
S.R. We've only been running the mail order service since THE DREAM CIRCLE came out a little over a year ago. It's really filling a gap in record stores. Local record stores may carry a few of my titles, but you never know what you're going to find. Some stores might have the latest release and a few older titles. Other stores may carry STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE and QUIET MUSIC on a regular basis but completley ignore my recent work. The mail-order service and my web site are really helping to fill in these gaps worldwide. Plus I like the direct contact with the listeners. Letters and feedback in the form of what people are ordering really feeds the music. I am preparing to get out and do concerts again, which will allow me to meet people directly. Besides being a lot of fun, that's important to the music's growth as well.
G.A. How do you view the electronic / contemporary instrumental music scene in the States?
S.R. It seems like it is growing over time, but it's still not anything that's threatening to break through on a mainstream scale. There's always these commercial high tides that come through, the peak of electronic music in the late sixties and early seventies, the New Age novelty wave that washed through, the techno pop wave that washed through with the synthesizer bands out of England and Europe, now the ambient thing. All those things are generated by the same wavemaker, but much of it is artificial. It's eventually going to stop when they pull the plug on it because it's not natural. But below and outside of all that, there is a natural evolution of the music that's happening with people that are absolutely devoted and will go up against the wall for their music at any level. They are like people who wander out into the desert, find a little spring bubbling up through the rocks, build a little shelter nearby and then let these magnificent, primal , uncompromising views inspire them. They're not going to change their vision according to marketing strategies or trends. They're not going to be calculating what the proper beat of the moment is. They're not asking, "should I put this kind of a dub rhythm or a techno attack rhythm or a tribal, half speed, opium-based rhythm?". Ultimately, the people I pay attention to are completley devoted to their art form, and if there are artists in the new ambient generation coming up that are going to keep evolving past the hype, then I'll be listening.
G.A. What are your future plans, albums, concerts, film work etc?
S.R. The next project coming up is HALCYON DAYS, which will be released on Fathom Records this fall. It's a collaboration with Stephen Kent, didgeridoo player and Kenneth Newby, multi-instrumentalist and Indonesian music expert. This album will be pulling out all the stops in terms of rhythms, atmospheres, didgeridoos, and exotic melodic impulses. I'm looking at a few concerts in the U.S (one with Chuck Van Zyl on the bill) and Europe, preparing a second volume of LOST PIECES, producing a second album for the African group Takadja, Vidna Obmana will return in October for a new collaboration. Also some other projects I'll keep under my hat.
G.A. And lastly, any additions you would like to add?
S.R. Thanks for your interest, and all the best to your readers.