Sonic Voodoo with Steve Roach
by Sharee, Jungle Voodoo (1999)
"From the gene pool of possibilities, an evolutionary mandala emits the music of chance as the ecstatic, electric body emerges in an awakened state of eternal being." Taken from the album BODY ELECTRIC (released earlier this year by Steve Roach and Vir Unis), that pretty much puts into words where this album will take you and if you have not happened upon Steve's music previously, it will prepare you for the journey each of his works will take you on. Recently, I had the pleasure of conversing with this grand daddy of electronic, tribal, sonic voodoo. Steve's blend of serene and haunting electronics with tribal instrumentation allows the listener to virtually time travel. This is what I found when I discovered STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE back in '92.
When did your musical journey begin, when did you start to create your own music and what were your early music influences?
Growing up in Southern California, there were many external forces working on me, mainly the constant visits to the desert, mountains and seaside locations, sometimes all in one day. This remains in my memory as the environment that provided the kind of place I felt intensely drawn towards since I could remember. This space was about being far from people and cities and influences of the modern world. These early experiences helped to open up my awareness to inner worlds that I am still discovering today. The music came later; I started to create music for the first time when I was 19 years old. By then the storehouse of these worlds I wanted to express were boiling over, just in time to meet up with the first affordable synthesizers at the time in the mid 70's. This was my first instrument.
So much of your work has that tribal element to it. It's sort of a misty haze of rhythm that will infatuate your senses the distant past becomes a stones throw away as your mind will flow into the global collective consciousness. A didg drone, a drum thump, a luscious orchestration of samples and synth; a melding of an electronic present and a tribal past will put you in touch with humanity's primitive roots. Could you explain your involvement and experience with tribalism and when that started crossing over to that your music?
Since the beginning of my creative life, the supreme source of inspiration for my music I have I wanted to express is the timeless movements of life within the natural world, and this influence through sound. In the process, I've also developed an interest in how other human beings throughout the world over time have translated this in their way. I have to say that Australia was a specific place that was calling me for many years in my subconscious, long before my first trip in 1987. This is where a connection was made; I could never describe how or why. You have to listen to DREAMTIME RETURN to hear the start of it. The full expression was realized with ORIGINS and ARTIFACTS. These were created a few years after my second Australia trip, and the influence was fully merged with all aspects of my life by this time. On a basic level, sleeping in some of these ancient abandoned aboriginal sites, with thousands of years of rock art on the walls next to my bed roll, would start to work on me over the weeks I would spend out in the bush in Northern Australia's Cape York. Just being in these incredible, spirited places provided a sort of doorway to travel through in ways I cannot reduce to words. Again, the sounds I work with are the way to translate this feeling.
This primordial quality has emerged in my music through a natural progression. When I first discovered the didgeridoo in the mid 80's and started to blend it with synthesizers, the feeling was a seamless blend of old and new, a creating of a bridge between these worlds. The didg seemed like an early synthesizer in the way it could be used to create powerful primordial almost electric sounds. My approach to the electronic instruments is about bringing this primordial sound out as well. I started to play more and more didgeridoo, and this in itself started to awaken a more definable understanding and desire to create the soundworlds I do with the electronics. Many times during ORIGINS and ARTIFACTS I would play solo acoustic didgeridoo for an hour or so before starting the session with electronics, as a way of tuning in. All of this, plus putting myself constantly in this world between worlds with the desert that I live in to reinforce the overall questions being asked helped me to discover this sound like an archeologist digging throughout my own consciousness; hence the titles, ARTIFACTS and ORIGINS.
The relationship to time that non-western cultures hold is another fascinating and vital aspect to this influence. However, I'm not trying to romanticize these people or cultures; I have no desire to become an aboriginal. I do think we as westerners feel disconnect in a deeper tribal sense, a yearning for something that seems missing in the big picture of modern life, and all that it promises to deliver. That's part of the attraction. I feel the music and gatherings are doing the work here at this time to help create the feeling we crave. It's not a new thing, but now we are plugging into the electric current to keep the primordial fire burning in a new way, so to speak. One can only hope that in the process we can continue to become original human beings who appreciate the diversity and wisdom of other cultures as well as the substrata of our own without falling prey to the destructive darker sides that could be alluring as well.
It's easy to see that your work is not only astheically pleasing, but that it does convey a sense of exploration. What sort of other thoughts go into the work?
I lead a quiet almost monastic life. In this way I feel more like a visual artist or sculptor who spends months on a painting. This is my favorite zone to be in. I enjoy people and being out in the world, but in small doses. I have always been this way. I grew up as an outsider, and feel not much different now as I did then in terms of living on the edge. It just seems that by putting out CD's, I find some other people who understand these soundworlds that I am compelled to create, and that feels reassuring. I have a place that I have connected into that feels vast and unlimited. It's impossible to say where the influences start and stop the shape of this place inside changes daily. I am here on this planet, immersed in it in my own way and responding in a direct and honest way. On rare occasions I have found collaborators that are on the same page, and can count these on one hand. Vidna Obmana and Vir Unis are among these. These types of collaborations are relaxed and fun, and a nice break from the solitude of the solo work. Above all, the collaborations have the potential to help each other see and hear in a different way for a while and take the music to a new level you might not get to alone.
Some of your earlier works, (namely STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE) were considered by many to be the epitome of a "meditation album". Was that a time in your life when you were exploring higher states of consciousness?
"It's all connected to this moment. At that time, 1983, I was living in Culver City near the MGM studio in this tiny house built in the 30's for the studio workers. I was as far from my element as you can guess, but really throwing myself into all kinds of interesting situations with other artists in music, film and the early stages of computer animation, the techno-tribes of the early 80's L.A. pre-Internet era. In the middle of all this structured chaos was my constant desire to be connected to a sanctuary of some sort. STRUCTURES was created as a place for me to soak in when I would return from the flurry of L.A. a private chill room. The music was not created to be a release, it was simply created out of a pure need to stay connected to a place that was harder to find at the time. In my house I would always have sequencers and synths playing, even when I was sleeping. I had the pieces for STRUCTURES around for a year or so, and some other people heard it and were taken by the space it created. Up to that point it was almost too personal to let out. All of my music is about exploring various states of consciousness the frequency is always changing but the source of the transmission is same. The dwellers of L.A. always have to find some sort of outlet!
So what are your recent explorations, musical or otherwise, and what is the next album/collaboration you're releasing?
I just completed LIGHT FANTASTIC. This is the next step after BODY ELECTRIC and ON THIS PLANET. I wanted to create an equal blend of the most relentlessly beautiful sound worlds I could cook up, while morphing hybrid tribal-trance grooves move it all along. It's the feeling of total expansion where the grooves and soundworlds work together, never overpowering each other. This will be out in September on Fathom. Also I just re-released THE DREAM CIRCLE, a 74-minute soundworld piece that was originally a limited release of 2500 copies. The requests through the web site were enough to create a second edition. I also have been releasing a series of albums known as the "Timeroom Editions", mainly for visitors to the web site.
Many consider you to be a pioneer in the field of "electronica" and ambient music, although many in the "new" electronic and dance realm have not discovered your work. How do you feel about the new electronic / dance / experimental movement? Have you considered any collaborations with artists from that field?
I am always interested to hear what happening, and I listen to lots of music I would never consider making. Much of the current big beat electronic dance whatever it's called this week sub-genre is great. The ones who do it well are pushing the edge in ways I can appreciate. If I was to team up with someone from this field, it would have to be from a real place of mutual appreciation, so maybe some day. Currently Vir Unis (from BODY ELECTRIC) and I are producing a project that could almost be called drum 'n' bass, but something beyond that. It's got really powerful monster grooves and a deep atmosphere, along with the influence of a speed metal drummer (MJ Dawn) who is also programming beats. The group is called SubAtomic God and the CD is called NEUTRENO. This will be out later this year; the label hunt is underway. Hopefully those who have not discovered my work will give it a chance and let their own ears be the judge. It is interesting how some people will hear through word-of-mouth that I do only deep ambient, or quiet meditative, or non-rhythmic music or tribal-ethno influenced music. DREAMTIME RETURN is light years apart from BODY ELECTRIC, as is the ambient-western DUST TO DUST. Since I have been carving out my sound for nearly 20 years, it takes a bit more effort to investigate the different periods. This is why it's hard to put what I do in any one category, although I think its clear that all of my work shares an atmospheric fingerprint that is consistent. It's just another way of saying the 'sound' of an artist.
Well, weve covered a lot of the past. Where do you see your music heading in the future?
I am always drawn to deep, long-form atmospheric pieces and hope to explore creating six-hour zones for the DVD format. With this kind of time line, grooves can be introduced perhaps 3 or 4 hours into the piece. This is exciting to consider. I have a handful of projects already set in motion that cover a wide range of sonic terrain. The process keeps unfolding like the skin of an onion, and that in itself is always an adventure I am ready to be on.
I gotta say, those were beautiful answers. I for one can definitely relate to a lot of what you speak of.
Thanks, I enjoyed it, and your questions took me to some interesting places.