An Interview with Steve Roach
Margen Magazine, Spain
Your career is a monument to Musical Art, and cannot be summarized in a few lines. In fact, I’d say you have developed the “space sound” into deeper levels. We sometimes use adjectives like “deep” and “organic” to define your new albums. I’d say that your music has become a type of “subterraneous” music. Music for caverns instead of music for cosmic voyages. Do you see what I mean? Personally, I love this evolution… but, are you okay with this opinion?
First off, thank you for honoring my work with your observations. Naturally it is rewarding to hear your perspective. I feel you are perfectly tuned into the “evolution” of sound I live within. These “roots of consciousness” that extend out into the subterranean realms are what call me deeper into the soundworlds I am drawn to create. I feel the tips of these roots are what often call to me sometimes as passing epiphanies, sudden inspirations or long term pursuits and on-going questions I continue to ask and ponder upon. Sometimes after dwelling on an area of deep interest or elusive attraction and following these metaphorical roots, the creative process is like providing the nourishment with rich soil and water.
I feel the music I create becomes what can be compared to the display of nourishment the lifeform receives during this process, and is witnessed from above the ground so to speak through the release of music into the world, in essence bringing the unconscious and daily fantasies and obsessions into form and awareness. At this point in my life, it all flows together and the need to create is constant, like breathing. The spontaneous moments at any point can create openings that offer the chance to explore non-ordinary states and peak sessions that can be captured on a recording which can forever hold and transmit the energy as it occurred.
Can you name any periods in your musical life when you felt a rise in your creativity?
I feel a steady continuum that has been building since the start of my creative life. When looking back, some higher points seem to speak out. At this moment, the time around STRUCTURES, DREAMTIME RETURN, ARTIFACTS, ORIGINS, MAGNIFICENT VOID, ON THIS PLANET and the last two years are standing out. Last year, I released seven projects, and in-between that, my time was filled with concerts. I felt possessed by the soundcurrent and the momentum that was building over the past years seem to really hit a peak during 2000. This is not a tempo I can keep up, since it’s so demanding on the body even though the creative energy knows no limits and drives me forward. The current phase is about pulling back from concerts for this year and focusing on new studio explorations. The creative force can be like a wonderful and sometimes wicked addiction. It’s very easy for me to give myself over to the soundcurrent. Like anything, there are times that one has to know the limits. I am still learning about this.
Do you feel close to the minimalism style of Terry Riley, for example? Do you think the American composers have developed a new genre in the electronic music? Your first albums had a strong Berlin School influence (Shulze, Tangerine Dream, etc.). What has been your evolution since then? I’d say your music has become more “earthy”.
I was quite drawn to the minimalism school, Glass, Reich and Riley in the 80’s. I have some great concert memories of being front row center for Philip Glass ensembles: Einstein “On The Beach”, “Glass Works” and so on. Same with Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians, Drumming, and Octet. This music was something I was quite drawn towards especially in the live setting even more than listening to records at the time. It was rare for me the listen to Philip Glass at home but I was always ready for the concerts. On the other hand, the early Berlin School, Tangerine Dream, Schulze, Ash Ra, Can was something that I listened to often and was quite taken by because of the surreal and textural nature combined with the primal power of the sequencing has always been intoxicating and mind-opening for me.
In the mid to late 70’s I was collecting the LP’s as imports and starting to move towards creating the music myself. The timing was perfect in that I was really looking for this sound that I was feeling in my more hidden awareness. I was starting to hear it in some of the early Prog Rock, but the most compelling parts never were long enough, or the music was filled with too many “nervous” notes, so to speak.
I could feel this sound alive in me but it took time to unearth it. Part of the way to finding it was by immersing myself in the driving sequencer music. It was almost like it was helping blast away the layers to my own creative core. When this occurred then I feel this organic, breathing aspect and as you say, an “earthy” feeling was then emerging on its own in my music.
Even though I have moved in a lot of different directions, I still feel they are all a part of the tree and connected at the roots. I still love the rhythmic, sequencer approach and I am often drawn to create in these worlds as well. Recently I have been creating new pieces with a new feeling that infuses these elements as well.
I think that WORLD’S EDGE is a turning point in your career. A different impulse to your music (it’s a personal and subjective opinion, of course). Are you okay with this opinion? How did you conceive this work?
This is a sharp perception that hardly anyone makes. I have always felt WORLD’S EDGE was a sort of lost release. Perhaps being somewhat in the shadow of DREAMTIME RETURN was part of it. Also, at the time the record company was going through personnel changes that delayed the release, if I remember right. In any case, it was a very intense and wonderful time in that it was created right after moving to Tucson and finally setting up my studio and home in the desert. I was also starting a new relationship with my wife to be at the time, Linda Kohanov. I was simply intoxicated on being alive every day and so grateful to be out of Los Angeles and California which was quickly becoming overcrowded. I felt a sense of relief to be away from the hive of the city and finally living in the desert was a dream come true.
Along with all the personal changes, when I started work on WORLD’S EDGE I was constantly focused on this dramatic rock formation that I see from my studio window everyday, and that set the mood and created a focus as the music was born. Some days it was covered in clouds; other days it was burning with heat. I remember during a massive lightning storm, seeing a bolt of lightning hit the very top and just not let go. Amazing! It was really like how one might imagine a day right out of a dawn of time, creation of the earth with the forces of nature in full wrath. That’s what these desert storms are like every summer. So all of this was what helped infuse the music on WORLD’S EDGE. I finally felt like I was where I longed to be with a new life unfolding.
As a solo composer, how have you changed as a writer? What elements have remained? Do you think your actual music is more accessible than your early music or vice versa?
I think its clear my music has become more complex and less accessible to those expecting more clear cut forms. Early on, in the 80’s for example, I was working more with directly melody as a strong central element in the music. It seems over time I keep changing the magnification of the lens, coming closer and closer in on the aspects of sound that are so compelling to me. The inclusion of the computer as a non-liner compositional tool as well as for sound design has certainly blown the lid off for me over the past four years, since I incorporated it into the studio. The previous approach of carving it out in the moment is still alive in the way I capture “experiences” occurring in the studio, but now I can take those and approach it like a surgeon going deep into the body of the sound and finding a more complex and involved world of textures and forms.
What are some of your different creative approaches to writing? Are there any usual procedures? Is improvisation important in your writing process?
I have no formula, since every project takes on a different shape and set of harmonic-sonic-mythic-rhythmic puzzles to solve and explore. In some settings, the feeling of creating a film is the best way to compare the process. Shooting the film can be compared to capturing improvisations and explorations in the moment, then telling the story by way of editing, like the texture and grain of the film and the processing can drive it, slow it down, sweep one away… whatever… I get tremendous inspiration from films in this way along with the visual arts. Since I never really do “songs”, many of the long form pieces are created from many different elements that, once woven into the fabric, serve many proposes in the big picture.
It’s interesting having grown up with analog equipment, synths, and recording equipment. For me the organic influence has created a foundation that can absorb whatever new approach comes along while still keeping the priorities straight in terms of keeping the human element alive in the machine. Since this was the only way to create in the “old days,” with the analog gear nothing could be stored in memory. You always had to approach it in the moment with these living sounds. That’s still how I work now, but with the luxury of the evolution of today’s technology.
What is the key element in your music?
The willful intention in all my music is to create an opening which allows me to step out of everyday time and space into a place I feel we are born to experience directly. Many of our current social structures and material concerns shut down the opening or build a complex array of plumbing to run through it.
In any case, these soundworlds offer a place where the bondage of western time is removed, and the direct experience of the feeling of an expanded state is encouraged. Of course the soundworlds I choose to create and live within are the ones my nervous system responds to, and people aren’t necessarily going to respond to them in the same way. I often refer to the words “visceral” and “being in the sound current” when describing my work. This is a prime area where I feel the measure of all my work: in the body, the vessel for the spirit. So for me to create these sounds and rhythms and utilize my own body as the reflecting chamber is my direct way of living in the sound current that occurs naturally when the juices are flowing. From the feedback I receive, this is something I know receptive listeners are feeling as well. Tapping into the creative process at this direct level simply feels like a birthright.
How do you know when a piece is really done? Have you ever looked on a finished album with regrets about a particular piece?
Gut feeling, instinct, creating a flow and balance that just feels right. Sometimes it occurs with a piece that occurs spontaneously and it feels finished right on the spot. Other times I can work on a piece over a long period of time before it feels complete. I can’t really say I have regrets about any past release. Each one had its own story for me on many levels. I put all of myself into the one I am currently engaged in, and when it’s complete I move forward. I don’t tend to look back on regret in life or in music. The momentum of the one project to the next is a powerful thing and since I often have several fires burning at once it seems they all feed the creative process. With that said, I can listen to older releases and hear them from a new perspective. This might trigger a new idea or technique and can sometimes remind me of a path I traveled down for a while and want to jump back on that track and keep exploring it further and deeper.
I think your music, besides technical matter, has always been vested with a strong spiritual sense. Are you okay with this opinion?
I truly feel the complexity of what makes me a human being and drives me to create this music is something that can never be measured and explained in terms conveniently reduced to a string of words. Starting with the impulses and urges of early man’s deep genetic memories and up until now, I feel compelled to make sense of the chaos and beauty around and within me, give it meaning and feel more whole and alive for our time on this planet. While in many ways the world (or at least popular culture) seems to becoming more cynical towards the expression of spiritual ideals, I am not afraid to put these feelings out there, since they’re just a deep part of my core. As far back as I can remember, the realm of ineffable feelings that would emerge in everyday life haunted me. When I discovered the way to express this world through sound, things just fell into place in many ways. It feels like it’s enough to just say I have to create my music in the same way I have to breathe. It’s not a question if it’s pleasing or disturbing to other people, or record companies and so on. I do it for myself before anything else.
How will be music be in the next century? Are you searching for the reply to this question with your music? How do you view the current new music scene and where do you see it going in the next 10 years?
I am creating the music and soul for the life I am living now. The constant renewal at a soulful level that occurs in the process of living a creative life is a day to day process. I am not looking to answer unanswered questions for the near future, although as I say it’s a compelling idea.
As for a 10 year projection, it’s up to those making the music to meet the challenge of having all the tools anyone could ever ask for and then having something to say that is connected to the bigger picture and comes from a genuine place. I have always seen this indefinable sound-art as an outlet for the innately talented that not too long ago might have never found their way to express these worlds. This means more and more people like myself that didn’t fit into the conformity of academic demands, or give into the imprisonment of creativity in the conventional matrix of the music business, can create their own way with true independence.
I feel the best qualities of this music are evolving in exciting ways, in all the sub-genres. It’s a moot point to say the boundaries are dissolving; it’s a big boiling pot of humanity by now. I say just keep stirring it, adding new ingredients and trying new recipes while staying connected to the soulful qualities that move one to create in the first place. The good stuff will rise and the rest will fall away like it always has. One thing for sure is there will be more of both extremes.
What does the term “new music” to you? Do you like this term for your music or do you prefer “contemporary”?
Its all the same to me. I guess you could say what I do is new music and it’s created in contemporary times.
I feel the hard line classification becomes a problem when music does not fit so easy into the term that is assigned to it. Also because it might be considered a particular genre is misleading. I know our tendency is to try and name what’s in our world, but after doing music for so long I could never really describe or easily classify it to those who ask. This has brought me to an interesting place with this question that seems to have no true answer.
Do you feel that your composing of moods and textures is equally as important as coming up with rhythms or beats?
I have always held deep fascination with both extremes. The constant shift between the pure atmospherics, soundworlds and hyper grooves, and tribal zones, this is something that has evolved naturally. I feel the process strengthens and stimulates the ability to change my perception during the creative process and outside the studio as well. This is why over time the two worlds have become more and more integrated. I often move between deep atmospheric and hybrid grooves throughout the day when working on a session over many hours. The seeds of this approach have been present in my music all the way back to my early releases, NOW, TRAVELER, STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE, and EMPETUS in the early 80’s. It just feels like when you exercise something for years, naturally it grows stronger. This is what will be presented in my release CORE, coming in several months; a move towards melting the various worlds into a common ground.
The variety of moods and settings on this album is great. Your music is very dynamic and complex but also very hypnotic. Tell me about this. Do you think your music can be a way toward meditation states?
Absolutely. I view the meditation state not as just one of a tranquil repose with the more atmospheric pieces, but also one where the focus on the tribal, rhythmic structures can create an opening. Through the energy and motion, the perception can be altered to a similar end.
At this point in your career as a recording artist, you’ve spread your stylistic boundaries further than most would ever dream. What other musical realms await a sonic explorer such as yourself? What should we expect from your next works?
It seems the various worlds I have gone into are becoming more merged, and out of that hopefully something completely unknown to me now will emerge from that fusion of elements that I love to work with.
As with many artists who keep working throughout their lives, I have certain themes and obsessions that I will continue to explore. I can feel this increase of the magnification of my perception more and more, going closer into the worlds within worlds as I mentioned before.
If you had to choose one piece of your music, and only one, to pass on to future generations, which one would it be?
A difficult question here. Perhaps DREAMTIME RETURN… ORIGINS… EARLY MAN… I might have to rewrite the rules here and take one from a few different periods.
You like the musical collaborations (Obmana, Rich, etc.). How is the work processed in these cases? Is it necessary to have a leader in these projects?
It’s very complex and unique to each project. True collaborations, the ones that I am interested in exploring are based on more than musical ambitions. I feel fortunate to have met a few friends on the planet that are real brothers before music. The richness that comes though mutual respect and the understanding of common desires and spiritual pursuits in music and in life is made real by the work itself over time. My work with Vidna Obmana over the years has reflected this perfectly, and our recent chapter in going to the edge in the concert setting has been another exciting discovery of understanding we share in the studio and in life.
My current collaboration with Vir Unis is exploring a kind of collaboration where the mutual focus is maintained through us both having the same computer-based system for recording, arranging and transforming. We can start a piece and continuously send it back and forth, updating and evolving the piece at a high level. Before and during this project we have shared hours of discussions of many diverse topics beyond the music that helped create the atmosphere that BLOOD MACHINE was born in.
Other projects will call for musicians to work in a session-like setting, giving their special talents to a project as a part of the whole. True collaborations are based on more than musical ambitions. It’s the alchemical potential to create something that could only be reached by the fusion of the collaborators.
By the time this magazine is out BLOOD MACHINE with myself and Vir Unis will be released. We put an enormous amount of time and energy into this one, almost two years on and off. I spent six weeks on the mixes. We are quite happy with the outcome.
I am currently working on two solo projects that are from the two extremes. CORE is about letting the primordial groove-sequencer-tribal-trance animal out the cage, so to speak. It will have some aggressive pieces, by my standards anyway, tapping a bit into that STORMWARNING energy but completely 2001 in the sound and space found within LIGHT FANTASTIC and the new BLOOD MACHINE, combining the full blown electronic along with the acoustic infusions. It’s shaping up with a nice balance of hyper-state pieces that seems to get into just the right place within my brain. It’s that place where I have always found electronic music to be the ultimate stimulant.
The other extreme is MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES. This will be going closer into the harmonic landscapes I so love to create. It’s still too soon to say much more, but these two releases symbolize the spiritual and emotional breadth that I feel the path of creating this music I do has brought me to. Anyways, I am having fun with it all. CORE will be on my Timeroom Editions label this summer, with MYSTIC CHORDS coming in early 2002. I am already planning projects with Vidna Obmana and Vir Unis. I still a have an ongoing collaboration with Patrick O’Hearn we started a few years back. We hope to start that fire up again this year.
Tell us something about the unreleased tracks we’ll publish in MUSIC FROM THE EDGE VOL. 3.
This was recorded live in concert in Portland, Oregon in November of 2000. It features Vidna Obmana on Large Furjara (Hungarian Overtone flute), Jeffery Fayman on frame drum and myself manning the electronics, small fujara and didgeridoo. It’s the first glimpse of what’s to come from a future collaboration between the three of us. I love the spontaneous interaction between us all and the way it moved from the electronic to pure acoustic.
The second track, “Distant Signals” was created around the time of LIGHT FANTASTIC. The main body is recorded live; I set up an array of sounds on a few synths and proceeded to play it directly to DAT. The organic elements were added later. For me it has this feeling like a beacon at a distant point transmitting this sound as the way a lighthouse would do during a dense storm to guide ships from danger.
Anything else you want to add?
Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers, and thanks for the support of all the music and artists that you provide.