At the World's Edge with Steve Roach
by Allan Bogle, NAV Online (April, 1999)
Not since Brian Eno has an individual revolutionized and defined contemporary electronic music like Steve Roach. A pioneer in this movement, Roach has established himself as the leading innovator in the atmospheric/tribal/ambient realm. With over forty albums to his credit and numerous accolades, he continues to set the standard by which the music itself is measured. Over the past 15 years, Roach has been one of the few artists in this genre to perform live on a consistent basis, not only in North America but in Europe as well. This prolific and productive artist took a break from his busy schedule to talk with NAV about his various array of projects.
NAV: As a highly prolific and visible artist, it seems that you have defied normal convention and have established a standard of escalating quality that corresponds with the number of releases which have increased over the years; what is the secret to this success?
Steve Roach: Music is my way in life. I have never approached it as a career, profession or a way to make a living. It so happens that my obsession to live in these soundworlds provides the means for those three things, but it's beyond that - that you can be sure. I feel over time as I deepen my understanding of the creative process and experience more of what life brings, the music naturally continues to express this ineffable quality that everyone tries to name. Of course quality is a subjective viewpoint, one that each individual reading this magazine holds. To me, the devotion to one's purest expression will bring a natural evolution that can't be denied if heard with truly open ears, maybe it's not always understood by the casual listener or the ear of a cynical critic, but that's not important here. To me, the hunger to create these soundworlds has evolved to a 24/7 addiction that I simply love to exist within. Staying connected to this process is the priority.
Sharing what I pull up from the well completes the circle and creates a powerful feedback loop that perpetuates this feeling that has been growing within me over the years. With each project, a sense of adventure is felt along with an excitement of the unknown that pulls me in time after time. It's a process that is constantly renewing itself, and throughout this renewal, I feel more inspiration over time. Hopefully, as an artist matures through life, his/her work reflects this. It's like breathing, and all you can do is go with it. This process is not something to force. Really it's about being in the flow. Perhaps this is why I am viewed as prolific, but to me it's just the level at which I need to operate.
Sometimes this becomes too much music for the record companies who want my music measured out in civilized increments every 14 months. If I was to follow this paradigm, I would die inside. It would be like holding my head under water. It's the same as saying, 'Stop breathing so much; you're too inspired.' Of course, I do understand the logic of the companies since they don't want two other releases competing against theirs at the same time in the bins at Borders and Tower. As much as I have tried to keep it between the lines, it still has become an issue. I confess - I am a sound junkie. This has been an ongoing point of controversy with the companies I have worked with over the years. Thankfully, now with the Internet and my Web site, I finally see a solution to this situation.
NAV: Explain the thinking behind the Timeroom Editions and what impact they have had on your listening audience as a whole? What are you able to accomplish with the release of the Timeroom Editions that you are not able to do with your more mainstream releases? Are you able to satisfy a creative impulse that would not easily manifest itself under the constraints of a mainstream label? After Slow Heat, what are your future plans and what direction are you heading with the Timeroom releases?
SR: As I just mentioned, the Web site and the online mail-order service have changed things dramatically. Timeroom Editions was created primarily as an Internet mail-order series of releases. Indeed, this is starting to solve these problems of too many releases competing in the mainstream. Even more, this keeps me in the flow without all the drama of timing out releases. Each small run release simply comes out when it's ready. There's no bar code tattooed on it, or official advertising and promotion campaign, just a few announcements letting the subscribers know about a new release.
These discs are there at the site for those who want to go deeper into my work. The number I might sell annually is small in the eyes of a normal record company, but it's clear it's a direct-from-the-artist affair. My hardcore audience loves this and of course I do as well. The direct feedback feeds the fire, pure and simple, no drama. Create the music and have the direct pipeline to the folks who want it. It's not a new thing for me since I have been doing my own mail-order since the beginning, but the level of efficiency that the Internet provides makes it enjoyable without consuming other aspects of my life, also keeping the path clear for the mainstream label releases on Fathom and Projekt while satisfying my creative drive and the fans on the inside who can never have enough. The mail-order service is also filling a big hole in terms of my back catalog and the fact that a lot of stores don't carry many back titles, so this is a good feeling as well, to help people find a release they have been searching for. This outlet will be the place I continue to present the longform pieces - 74-minute zones and hopefully soon with DVD four hour zones. In the meantime the mainstream releases are going strong with Body Electric just out on Projekt, and I am currently working on Light Fantastic, my next release on Fathom coming out in September.
NAV: What are the creative processes that go through your mind when beginning a project? Do you have aesthetic or physical/mental inspirations that you draw from?
SR: There are so many levels at work here. Long-term ideas that build up energy and often start as spontaneous moments in the studio. Sometimes a title or a word will key me into the deeper store house of memories, dreams helping to project them into the music. The ongoing meditation of working on the various soundworlds will often take me to places I could arrive at no other way. I have this biological need to create these certain types of zones that have become established in my music. It's something that wells up time after time, and it's a world I'm compelled to keep exploring in various ways. Living here in the desert is a constant generator that feeds my inner life in many ways.
NAV: How much does the natural environment surrounding you figure into your work?
SR: The desert is my home in the truest sense of the word. I have never found any other environment that feeds me like this place. The long distance views, the extreme and often subtle displays of life, death and the display of time in motion are constant. 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 idea is to not represent the desert in a literal, musical way, but to tap into the invisible, primordial source that expresses itself most eloquently through the desert, 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. Also the uncompromising support and partnership with my wife Linda Kohanov is beyond measure. She is always there at every twist and turn of this crazy road of the independent artist.
NAV: What is left for you to do creatively that you have not already accomplished? It seems that with the critical success of the Magnificent Void that you have returned somewhat to your earlier textural works but with a darker edge; are you exploring some of your previous venues or will you continue to explore uncharted waters, i.e. Body Electric?
SR: Well, it feels like it's just starting in many ways, at least at this new level where I am haunted by this rich bubbling stew of ideas in the present, past and future, sounds and musics all intermingling in fascinating ways. The momentum of my travels so far, along with the integration of new technologies are vital parts of the ongoing discoveries that keep the passion building. There is never enough time in the day for this. The soundworlds I have been working within over the years seem to peel like the skin of an onion. Just to start with Magnificent Void that you mentioned to On This Planet which led to Body Electric with Vir Unis. Between those was Dust to Dust, the ongoing work with my dear friend Vidna Obmana, as well other projects and productions. Some ideas that were not fully explored a few years back might resurface with a new approach now which leads to unknown discoveries at this time. It's all part of the fun. Also, another important factor is the collaborations and the possibilities they can create.
NAV: Along with the collaborations with Robert Rich, Vidna Obmana, Suspended Memories and others, you have been producing works by various artists representing a wide spectrum, from David Hudson and Perry Silverbird to Jorge Reyes and Takadja. Is this an effort to challenge your own creative abilities, to seize a fragile movement and bring much of relatively obscure music to the limelight, etc.?
SR: The collaborations have the potential to take everything to another level. Considering I spend a lot of time in solitude carving away at sounds and creating the music, the camaraderie of sharing time and space and music is always good time. Also producing and helping like-minded, up-and-coming ambient artists is something I love to do when I can. These projects are about helping them to find their way throughout the early stages that can be overwhelming, now more than ever. The other productions you mentioned were especially challenging in terms of these being on the most part acoustic. Takadja was a West African group, 6 percussionists recorded in their home of Montreal. This was a big stretch from the world I usually work in but Celestial Harmonies gave me a shot. This was trial-by-fire but somehow it worked out with the first CD winning the Juno (Grammy in Canada) for world music. My approach with Takadja was to stay traditional, whereas with Australian Didgerdioo player David Hudson, the collaborative aspect was more at play and new ideas were tested out.
NAV: With your substantial body of work, one can look back and see defining points in your musical progression when a radical departure has been made into another area; such as from the Berlin phase to ethno-tribal to prolonged introspective Timeroom pieces to the recent Body Electric. In recording these various compositions, do you continue certain bodies of work in the same vein for a period of time under an ever-present influence or do you wipe the slate clean to tackle the next project?
SR: I feel a connected process at work, one project infused with the influences of several released down the line in ways that aren't always so obvious. It's really important to know that I often work on several different projects at once. The momentum of working on something during the day might lead me to another totally different zone at night. I will usually go with it and not worry if it's in the direction of my current project, like a painter who might have several paintings and sculptures going on at once. The relationship between all of these works in progress keeps the juices flowing. The ebb and flow of different moods helps me to explore new areas that I might not find if I approached the act of composing from a specific album concept and tried to stick to it until it was finished. I thrive on living inside the music as it's being created. To capture a feeling and then immerse myself in it through the sound is what it's all about. Then again their are projects like Suspend Memories where it's a ten day marathon and at the end the music is complete.
By the time the music is released, it's often out of sequence from the time period in which it was created. I wrote the first piece on The Magnificent Void years before that album came out, before Artifacts and Origins and Soma, which were actually released first. It's as if certain pieces appear out of nowhere as a glimpse of what I will be exploring further down the road than I even realize, but it's interesting how my work is viewed publicly as a linear process. In the future, I see the Web site releases being more accurate in terms of being able to offer them closer to the time in which they were created, and the ability to occasionally release two entirely different albums simultaneously would be the most accurate statement of their relationship to each other.
Another facet to this is to note how some listeners perceive my work from the point at which they discovered it. I was just speaking with Stu Daniels of Jade Promotions today, and he was saying how he would introduce some phase of my work to new listeners and they would be taken aback by the fact that it was rhythmic and more intense or pure atmospheric or more ethnic influenced, unaware that I worked in all these areas.
As a culture, it's clear we are rediscovering the deeper power of music and sound. I am optimistic about what this can bring on an individual basis. I see it every day through feedback from my audience. It's also a fine line to walk when bringing "art" to the marketplace where the tendency is to expect it to perform like a pop release very quickly in order to justify its existence. The near future will be interesting to see as the artists with vision, determination and something to say are only a Web site away.
I have worked hard to avoid the pitfalls of hanging on to old patterns, letting the "market" 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 creating the rhythms and movements of those nameless forces that infuse life with vitality and meaning.
Editor's Note: Steve Roach's discography is too extensive to list here. For a complete listing, check out the Steve Roach Web site at steveroach.com.