The Soundworlds of Steve Roach
by Mike McLatchey, Exposé Magazine
Synthesist Steve Roach needs little introduction to purveyors of electronic sounds. It is no exaggeration to say that he is an influence on a new generation of musicians, and through over 20 critically acclaimed albums and collaborations he has consistently been a pioneer, setting the standard in a diverse array of musical genres. It is no small honor that Steve took time from his recent projects to speak with Exposé....
Exposé: I have to ask you thank the Westmalle Trappists on your newest collaboration with Vidna Obmana. Does Belgian brewing have a unique impact on your music?
Roach: It's no secret I enjoy a good ale or two. At the time we recorded "Ascension Of Shadows" in Belgium, Vidna Obmana had the good fortune of living in the village of Westmalle, home of one of the few official Trappist breweries. After a long, rewarding day in the studio, we would enjoy a tasty Double or Triple Westmalle Ale with the playback of the music. This is really something incredible, to drink this brew at the source with a fresh piece of music playing back at you.
The results are certainly admirable. Did the concept of "Ascension" come before the recording or afterwards? I noticed that it deals with the number three quite a bit the number of discs, use of the triskelion, and the three parts of the middle CD.
The music came first. On this third collaboration, we decided to get together in Belgium after our string of concerts in the U.S. and Italy. We had no agenda as to what form it would take; it seemed we were just simply putting ourselves into the next chapter of our friendship and commitment towards the musical atmosphere we feel. The concerts were important to bring us to a new level of working together, really trusting and listening deep into the moment and creating from that space.
This is how the AoS sessions started, and from that point, it just flowed one piece to the next without much discussion. We did quickly discover that working in a multi-track situation was not the way to go on this one. Keeping with the live approach was the priority. Within the week, we had completed the three discs. After the first disc flowed out as a live-to-DAT session, we kept the energy moving, and the second one soon followed. After this, we felt an even bigger creative opening and seized this moment as well for disc three. The concept came during the constant playbacks and discussions that would arise out of the feeling of the music that seemed to appear all at once. Also, once we had completed the three soundworlds, we performed a concert in the Netherlands that included some of this music that was only a few days old. It was quite a week, and a nice way to end the year. If we had more time, perhaps the number four might have been the point at which we built the concept around. Perhaps someday...
"Slow Heat," "The Ambient Expanse," and discs one and three of "Ascension" are all atmospheric works without the percussion that has strongly shaped much of your work. A temporary respite?
The atmospheric soundworlds have always been the base from which I start and return to when its time to refuel, cool out and reconnect after touring, traveling and so on. Also on a day-to-day basis as well. I thrive working on both extremes (atmospheric and rhythmic) and feel the work in both areas feeds and influences the music overall in interesting ways. Since my early years of "Now" and "Traveler" on up through "On This Planet," the interplay between the two dynamics has captivated me. Also, all along the way, there was a need to drop into these dedicated long-form pieces such as "Structures >From Silence," "Quiet Music," "To The Threshold of Silence," and "Looking for Safety." AoS, "Slow Heat," and "The Ambient Expanse" were a part of this flow and the fact that they came out around the same time makes it look more connected as a period, but, in fact, these projects were created alongside the more dynamic pieces which is often the case as I mentioned above.
As an example, a day in the Timeroom might start out as a pure Atmo kind of day and move its way into full blown mandala groove-like piece with the atmospheres becoming the foundation on which the piece lives. Or this could happen in reverse as well, stripping everything down. Because of this approach, I have the notion to gather some favorite atmospheres that were the foundation to groove pieces, but present them in their original atmospheric state. By this approach, you hear it in a new way. I have some of these soundworlds that still haunt me in their pure form.
I do like the fact that these three new releases create a connectedness to them with the light they cast. Considering the next release in February 1999, "Body Electric", it is another story altogether in comparison.
"The Ambient Expanse" was my first encounter with Vir Unis' music. How did the "Expanse" project come together and what do you think contributed to making the final result so cohesive? Did "Body Electric" have its birth in the "Expanse" project?
I first presented the concept to the owner of the Mirage label, Grant Mackay, about doing a pure atmospheric/expansive project with a group of like-minded artists after he invited me to do a piece for his "Ambient Eclipse" multi-artist release in '97. I wanted to reduce the amount of artists so each one could have more time to let the pieces breathe, unlike a lot of multi-artist collections. This was also based more on the paradigm of "Desert Solitaire" and "Western Spaces" where I would plant the seed with the concept, and help guide it along. I would do this with discussions and elusive metaphors to ignite the process. Also, choosing friends who had clocked in at the Timeroom and shared the "expansive" atmosphere we were going after helped the entire project to flow naturally. The final step was for me to perform the final mix and add a few brush strokes here and there to unify the overall vision. The entire project came together in record time as well, it just seemed like the right time to capture such a moment.
I met Vir Unis when he and Ma Ja Le, a group he was working with, opened a concert for me in Milwaukee in '97. They asked me to help produce their next CD, "Imaginarium." Through the process of working on this project, we became friends and could see a blending of music. Vir Unis, as he goes by, lives in Illinois and has played in bands for years in the midwest but has, up until now, not released his own music. He's a talented guy for sure, and what I was really drawn to was his interface with the computer as his instrument. He has an intuitive, organic feel using these tools that I had not seen before. Our exchange of ideas began long before "Ambient Expanse." We had worked on "Body Electric" for nearly a year in long-distance mode, sending tapes back and forth. We got together in the Timeroom during February '98 and melted it into its present form. We were moving on instinct here again, wanting to find a new seamless blending of rhythmic and atmospheric worlds we are addicted to. We wanted pure, high-dosage, electronic playback.
This collaboration has really stretched the boundaries of your music. I hear a really unique integration of more modern/techno influences, without falling into the cliches of the style. What are your challenges as an artist in continuing to innovate and avoid stagnancy?
"Body Electric" was the next natural step after the discoveries with the "On This Planet" release. The fractal grooves of Vir Unis blending with my various rhythmic approaches and our combined soundworlds fit like a glove. This is when collaborations really work and take everything to the next level. The challenges indeed become greater over time but it's something I don't think about so directly. I have always had this compelling feeling of reaching into the void. It just seems natural to keep exploring different soundworlds, and the process is nourishing with a sense of renewal at best. That's what has driven me from the start. Now, more than ever before, I feel there is not enough time in the day to map out these places. The momentum is strong, and that feeds the process of burning through the stagnant periods. Something as simple as the way your hands move knobs and play the keys can become a familiar habit, so I find it important to try and stay aware of too much muscle memory setting in. I don't mean re-inventing the wheel at every turn, but it's about being present with the creative process from moment to moment. The process of creating the music and living in it as it is unfolding are the moments that make it all so exciting and energizing. So, it is challenging in the best way, but if I can stay connected to the flow, it's not a struggle. I really feel the true intentions of the artist are transmitted into the music, woven in as part of the fabric. I see the living proof of this everyday in feedback from listeners and this too feeds the music in powerful ways.
There is also an aspect of the Tao that is at play here and in my life overall. Of all the philosophies and religions that try to explain and maintain a connection to the source of existence in some way, I've found that the ideas expressed by the ancient Taoist sages come closest to my own perspective on creativity and the inspiration I find in nature. Rather than dominating or completely disregarding nature as most religions have attempted to do, Taoism recognizes the source of existence as expressing itself most effectively through nature. As a result, this philosophy emphasizes receptivity, spontaneity and the ability to align oneself with the flow of nature's currents as the most effective path to a meaningful life. It is in this sense that I feel such a strong connection to the desert. By immersing myself in this environment and taking cues from its rhythms, its extremes of heat, its profound moments of silence and the effect these things have on my own body and psyche, I find the music will often compose itself when I return to the studio. The main idea is not to represent the desert musically, but to tap into the invisible, primordial source that expresses itself most eloquently through the desert and to let that force influence my work. These feelings would be difficult to capture in words, and if I were to try to plan a composition around them in some intellectual way, I would be sure to fail. It is a matter of responding to each and every moment authentically without a thought of how palatable it's all going to be to some record company, or how impressive it may or may not be to the critics.
This is why I can read the "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tsu and feel that he and I are on the same page. Some scholars think the Tao Te Ching may have been the collective work of several like-minded sages, but the legends surrounding the book center on this one man whose name simultaneously means "old master" and "old child." In any case, the book was written about 2,500 years ago, and you can tell from the writings and legends that the philosophers Lao Tsu represents were not impressed by political status or educational degrees. To these sages, servants and stable boys who were true to their own instincts and emotions were the noblest of creatures. The Tao or "The Way" is described as a reality beyond words and concepts. As the source of all creation, it is in constant flux and transformation, so any attempt to pin it down with even the most complex verbal discourse is like trying to catch the flowing waters of a great river in a small bucket. Once contained, the miniscule part of it that has been captured no longer represents the vitality of the whole. This is significant to my work because music does have the ability to represent the flow, the flux, the slow and sensuous organic transformation. It's not something you're going to achieve with your standard pop-song formula, but for those trying to make sense out of what I'm doing, based on some established philosophy, Taoism is a good place to start.
Still, you must realize that my affinity with this tradition is something I recognized only recently through my wife's research for a book on how horses embody Taoist ideals at a natural, primarily unconscious level. Through her work, I was intrigued to see that scholars have traced the roots of Taoism to Central Asian/Siberian shamanism (the word "shaman" is literally of Siberian origin). At the heart of this system is the belief that there are two worlds, the physical world we experience, and the silent, mysterious realm of origins that gives birth to the visible universe and sometimes breaks through to affect it in various ways. It was the shaman's job to recognize the primordial forces at work in natural events and to establish contact with this otherworld to answer questions or seek help. In the introduction to a 1993 translation of the Tao Te Ching, a writer named Jay Ramsey sums it up nicely when he says that "the idea of the shaman being in touch with the world of spirit is what lies behind the Taoist notion of the sage being able to flow with the true natural forces of the universe. Shamanism also sees certain creatures and places within the natural world as being more open or receptive to the forces of the otherworld than others, and this is where the idea of the sage in retreat and the reverence for certain animals within Taoism are also to be found."
The desert is one of those places for me, and horses are one of those animals for Linda. More importantly, this quote makes an important distinction relevant to my work because my music has been called "shamanistic" in a variety of articles and reviews. As Linda explains it, Taoism is essentially an innovation that acknowledges the reality behind the shamanic experience even as it cautions against the sorcery of manipulating these forces for selfish reasons. Sages learn to ride the currents of Tao without trying to change their natural course, and in this mode, the full power and virtue of the primordial source flows through their every action. This has always been my goal with the music. I still wouldn't call myself a Taoist, because I don't practice any specific rites or techniques, but the essence of that philosophy is the closest I've seen to describing in words a perspective I arrived at on my own. I also relate to the Taoist disregard for human authority as well as society's overemphasis on intellectual pursuits and rigid educational institutions. Lao Tsu expressed his belief that the entire planet would run a lot smoother if people would let go of their limited perspectives, follow the Tao, and as a result connect with the primordial force that set this process into motion long before people appeared on the scene and arrogantly assumed they needed to run things their way. To align with the Tao, you have to become quiet and receptive enough to feel its presence, sensitive and adaptable enough to follow its direction, spontaneous enough to move with the flow whenever it unexpectedly changes course, modest enough to realize your own mind will never fathom the vast and complex workings of this universal principle, and trusting enough to know that wherever its currents lead, the Tao ultimately acts in your own best interest. This essentially describes the process I use to create music, and while it will always bear the qualities of my own style, my own voice, I have worked to avoid the pitfalls of hanging on to old patterns, letting the "market" or record companies dictate my next move or trying to intellectually second guess what will sell the most albums. The priority is to evolve as an artist so that I can become more accurate in portraying the rhythms and movements of those nameless forces that infuse our lives with vitality and meaning.
In closing, what projects will we see from you in the near future?
"Body Electric" was released in February and the second release on my Timeroom Editions will be out by the time this issue is out. This is entitled "Truth And Beauty." It is a second volume of lost pieces over the past few years. The Timeroom Editions are for the most part available exclusively through my web site. There is an ongoing list of releases coming over time, including a collaboration with Jorge Reyes. I am currently working on a new solo release for Fathom due for release in September. There are other productions in the works and beyond all of this the web site is best place to keep up to date with the flow.