Phlox Interview by Richard Knijnenburg
Phlox Notes, November 1991 (The Netherlands)
In August 1991, Phlox had an in-depth interview with Steve Roach, spanning his musical evolvement from before his first release Now (1982) to World's Edge (1992). The interview appeared in print in November 1991 in the eighth issue of Phlox Notes.
I got a hold of my first synthesizer in early 1978, so it was around four years of constant playing and experimentation that led up to the release of Now. I had no previous musical training: the synth was my first instrument. My music at that time was certainly about expressing the inspiration and excitement of having at last found something I seemed to have been looking for for a long time. Discovering electronic music was quite a revelation for me in many ways, to say the least. First hearing it...feeling it, knowing I must create it. I would describe my music from that period as 'urgent' in terms of the energy and intoxication of new found creativity. My first synth was a Roland SH-3, which was run through a phase shifter together with a Voc Continental organ. I quickly went into debt buying the Arp 2600 with sequencer, Micro-Moog, Arp Solina string ensemble and Roland Space Echo. I performed my first concert six months after getting all of this. I was still in the overwhelm mode with everything that was happening, so it seemed like a good time to just jump off and see what would come next.
What were your greatest influences at that time?
While I was hearing Tangerine Dream, Popul Vuh, CAN and others from the early 1970s, Klaus Schulze's Timewind was the one that really hit the switch for me. His music provided plenty of fuel for inspiration in the early days. It seemed to externalize feelings I was looking for in music. In fact there were long stretches were I would start the day with breakfast, vitamins and Timewind.
After Now comes Traveler (1983), a second album of fierce experimental electronic music. These two are followed by Structures From Silence (1984) and several Quiet Music collections (1986), explorations of warm, intense ambient music. How did this radical change come about?
Both Now and Traveler grew out of a searching for new sounds and states of minds. Above all, numerous concerts in California helped shape the music tremendously. I was certainly drawing on the European influence, but at the same time wanted to brea through to the next level. Your description of that music as fierce experiments seems right. You will find it interesting that Structures From Silence was recorded at various times over a few years, alongside my work on Traveler. The darker, quieter places partly grew out of the need to 'cool out' from the rhythmic, sequential world that I love as well; it just seemed natural to balance out this way. Also living in Los Angeles with all its intensity created a strong need to envelope myself in a sonic sanctuary, one I would often create with sequencers playing for days in my home while I was sleeping and reading, basically living with music constantly. Even when I would leave the house, (with a cassette of what was currently playing in the studio for in the car), I would leave everything churning away, as when I was off somewhere I could always shift back to the studio, feeling this constant connection to the sound. Upon returning I would jump back into the sound-current and keep carving the sound. This is something I still love to do now.
Empetus (1986) seemed a new level in the style you were developing on Now and Traveler.
Empetus was a culmination of the sequencer-driven music I had been exploring and had been possessed with from the very start. This recording was important for me as I felt I had expressed the intensity, the true visceral qualities that synthesizers can offer without compromise. It was a very cathartic release for me in many ways. Near the completion of Empetus I was starting to move towards the 'dreamtime' direction, looking more towards ethnic music for inspiration. It all starts to take on a fairly organic quality in retrospect, the different forms feeding off of each other, interconnected, spiral like: one giving birth to the next.
Stormwarning, which was only released in 1989, carries live performances from 1985 and 1987. Both pieces are fast, pulsating flows of sequencer-driven music, the ultimate expression of the Empetus idea. While the basic idea for these performances is similar to that of much of the music of the Berlin school, both style and content are somehow completely different.
Stormwarning was recorded at the peak of the Empetus period. For me the live-concert situation is approached with an intensity that's quite different from composing or improvising in the studio. What you hear on Stormwarning is a style I had been developing for concerts over several years. Of course I was drawing inspiration from the long form organic analog synth- sequencer style that has its roots in the Berlin school of electronic musicians [Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze]. For me, when I first heard sequencer music and then discovered the sequencer myself...I could not believe something like this existed! So I set out to find my own voice and explore this wonderful mind-altering tool. The result at that time, technologically speaking, was a setup consisting of two ARP sequencers and the 2600, Oberheim DSX sequencer, DMX drummachine, OB8 and Xpander synths and the Micro-Moog. Later on I added the Ensoniq ESQ-1 to the system, for eight more sequencing tracks. I would prepare numerous sequences with various relationships to one another, leaving room for spontaneous improvisation on the basic form of the piece. The approach was to carve the sound out by paying very close attention to what was coming out of the speakers. Constantly shaping, mixing, playing with the sound in the hall with hands on knobs, sliders, keyboards, always pushing the dynamics of the sound system. I live for those moments when evertyhing locks in, when the concert hall seems to disappear and everything becomes pure sound. Althoug my approach to sequencing has somewhat changed from then, these are the things that carry onto my performances today.
The 1988 album Dreamtime Return is often considered your best work. How important has it been for you?
Many things were coming together for me as a composer, and above all a human being. Some of my deepest, most personal musical aspirations were starting to surface through all the work that led up to the first pieces on Dreamtime Return. It was around this time that I remember vividly, coming into a new perception about my relationship with remote desert areas that I would visit since I was young. Western Spaces (1987) grew out of this as well. My solo dreaming hikes in the desert would lead me to incredible places, in terms of austere and beautiful sites as well as spiritual and mental discoveries. I set out to try and convey these experiences through the music and sound. The aboriginal connection is not easily explained but I know it's firmly connected to my walkabouts in the desert here in the southwest of the United States. I was intrigued by Australia for years in a mysterious way. It was when I saw the film The Last Wave that things really started to stir in a creative way. I was also starting to receive letters from listeners in Australia about how the music of Structures From Silence seemed to reflect the land there. Which is when things also started to become more tangible with the connection. I would spend a lot of time shifting in thought between Australia's outback, which I was yet to visit, and the Californian deserts. Also, when I first heard the Australian didjeridu it was a if I was hearing some kind of ancient electronic instrument creating a bridge to the present. The power of the sound and the way it calls up deep primordial feelings has much in common with what I strive for in my music. As for the work on the album, I was well into composing for Dreamtime Return when I received a telephone call out of the blue from photographer David Stahl. He started by saying that he had been to Australia several times and this music he just heard, Structures From Silence, was perfect for a documentary on the Aboriginal cave art of Cape York. Within fifteen minutes we decided that I would go with him to Australia and to the very remote areas I was 'dreaming' of! I feel my experience of going to Australia brought me to a much deeper understanding on drawing inspiration from empowered geographical sites. Feeling into these place in a dreamtime sort of way was incredible - feeling the memories contained there, hearing the sounds, seeing the activity of thousands of years shifted into the moment in my imagination. These are some of the things that were vital to my work on Dreamtime Return, and continue to be a major influence now.
Your collaborations with Michael Stearns and Robert Rich are evidence of a greater interest in sound in itself. Can you tell something about this approach?
I feel that the sound pieces created with Michael and Robert grew from the concepts of the recordings and the "what if" approach to sampling technology which we were all exploring heavily. The "what if" approach meaning: what if we sampled, for example, two handfuls of nails falling into a large metal drum with a small amount of water in the bottom? This is a direction I'm very excited about exploring. The mutational qualities of sampling finds its parallel in surrealistic art. The main body of "Magma" was the sound of small round metal gun pellets being swirled in a circular motion inside of a ceramic bongo turned upside down. I then proceeded to transpose the sound down the keyboard doubling it and processing it heavily with reverb, harmonizer, etc.
Los Angeles seems to be a focal point of musicians who're working on alternative styles. How do you feel about that city as a place to work on music?
I think L.A. can be described best as the city of ambition. There is great opportunity for those who can survive in that sort of urban jungle. I found it very inspiring as well as challenging to pursue my dream there. I think the best part of L.A. is the range of interesting and talented people that pass through. The pace of life, the intensity of the place all help to drive you forward in many different ways at best. On the other extreme, as a vast city it can be quite alienating to the soul, which is why I left. I first moved to L.A. from San Diego in 1979 to pursue my music with the encouragement of Doug Lynner who was the editor of Synapse magazine, which I believe was the first magazine for electronic music in the states. Within a short time, I was meeting a number of musicians who had also recently arrived in Los Angeles with similar interests in new music - Richard Burmer, Michael Stearns, Kevin Braheny were among those. The next ten years seem to have went by like a blur from a Koyaanisqatsi timelapse sequence! However, during my last five years in L.A. I was feeling myself reaching further down through the concrete to feel the earth below. Increasing trips to the Joshua Tree desert (200 km away) gave me the recharging needed to live in L.A. It was after my second trip to Australia that it got to the point of no returning. I just had to leave it all behind and go to the next edge, leaving the roar of the city for the roar of the silence I find in the desert.
Speaking about 'edges', can you tell something about your next album: World's Edge?
World's Edge on one level is about what I just mentioned, to find the next edge and create from that place. I've always enjoyed this metaphor - coming to the edge of an abyss and jumping off, building your wings before you hit the bottom and soaring with the culmination of all those feelings. On another level, I was thinking a lot about the disappearance of ancient cultures as modern life infiltrates. Somehow conveying a primordial voice in the modern technology, going to the edge in a shamanic sense, bringing back the sounds that carry inspiration and power. On yet another level, I feel the pieces are imbued with the feeling that the world is at the critial edhge in many ways. Through it all, I feel the artist, as an open nerve, has a responsibility to transform all of this into something that will hopefully give off at least a spark of insight and inspiration. As for the music, it's going deeper into the essence of dense textures together with primal percussion, which I also perform all of with the exception of Guy Thouin, a tabla player from Montreal. Robert Rich plays steel guitar on one piece. It will be a double CD with disc one having ten pieces and disc two containing one, 60-minute piece titled "To the Treshold of Silence". This piece in particular is a good example of the influence that living in the desert now has on my music. Near future projects include a new recording with Robert Rich and a video project on the Mexican Yucatan and its Mayan cultures.
You've always worked with lots of different people, as a musician or producer - is this something you set out to do?
I've always felt that collaboration was important to the big picture. You always learn a great deal whether it's successful or not. I do see a danger in getting shut away and stagnating in your own synthesizer universe and feeling there's no other lifeform out there. Finding a compatible collaborator is not always easy. Like any relationship, there's give and take. With the music as the highests priority it's very exciting to push each other's creativity in different ways. It's something I would encourage more synthesists to try rather that crank out another solo album that sounds like the previous. I do enjoy producing for others when I'm invited, providing I connect with the music and the people behind the music. Again this stretches me in different ways.
Anyone in particular you would like to work with, or are planning to work with in the future? Any vocalists?
David Torn is one musician I would love to collaborate with. We talk only rarely because he's booked up with so many projects. He was amazing to work with on The Leaving Time. I have no plans in the lyrical area of vocal music, but I do think about integrating the voice as an instrument with my music. I love the quality of voice of Egyptian artist Hamza El Din, who has an album out on Rykodisc, and Pakistani Qwalli singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who has a few albums on the Real World label.
Any other current musical favorites?
I listen to lots of different music, especially considering my wife is a music critic and journalist specializing in jazz and world music. Current favorites include David Sylvian, Green Isac, Jan Garbarek - Sanford Ponder has some interesting new music out under the name of Botanica.
Do you have a specific method of working?
My method of working varies from day to day, depending on the given inspiration. It could be long term ideas and feelings distilling over time, a concept that sets me off, or just the desire to create sounds in a sensual sort of way. A certain smell, the play of sunlight at a given moment providing a lucid spark with which I will move into the studio. With all this I feel more like a painter or sculptor with sound. Sometimes the piece will form itself in the moment and hopefully I will capture this on tape as it's happening. This could be the complete piece or the foundation of something I might work on for many months. One thing that's constant with my approach is that I tend to shape the body of the piece live and I will often sub-mix and record up to 24 tracks, with effects and all down to two, four or eight tracks. I've found it's very important to capture the entire sound live, to capture the magic of the moment. Now with DAT it's better than ever to roll tape for hours with cue points along the way. Often I will transfer DAT 'magic' tracks to 8-track and expand from there.
What's in your setup at this time?
I've experimented with quite a few synths along the way, although my setup has continued to evolve around the analog sound with the Oberheims at the center of it all. My current studio setup is the Oberheim OB8, Matrix-12 and Xpander analog synths, Emu Emax II sampler, Korg Wavestation and M1 digital synths, Kawai K5 digitial synth, ARP 2600 analog synth with two 16-stage sequencers and the Oberheim DMX drummachine. I use the Akai MPC- 60 midi production center for sequencing and percussion programming. I also use the Macintosh for sound storage and I'm especially fond of the "M" interactive composer program. This program is like having several dozen ARP style sequencers all working together spinning out endless permutations of note patterns. I tend to use the Oberheim Matrix-12/Xpander as the all purpose synth. It's great for complex, thick textures as well as sequence voices. The extensive modulation makes for some pretty wild sounds as wells. The Wavestation tends to work well in many situations. The animated sound quality and digital sharp clarity offers a nice contrast in texture. The Emax II has a sound that blends well with the other synths - I use it for many tasks. My favorite is to sample strange sound sources; quite often I sample the Oberheims which leads to some interesting experiments.
How do you create your sounds? Do you use third-party sounds as well?
I create sounds from different angles. Sometimes a piece of music I'm working on calls for a particular sound that I set out to create that's very specific. Other times I just go in and start improvising, which often leads to creating new sounds that have arisen from the moment. Sometimes I hear sounds in my imagination and that will set me off as well. Often I just go into the studio with the sole intention of creating new sounds, and during the process of working with the programming of these new sounds, I'll find a piece of music forming out of the creation of the sound. For the most part I don't use third-party sounds. Once in a while something comes across from a friend that I'll use as a starting point for my own programming.
Do you have a final musical goal toward which you are working, maybe not so much as an objective, but more like a means to evolve as a musician?
My main concern is to maintain an openness to new ideas. Following my instincts has always been the way to the core of music. The sharpening of the intuitive process is vital in my approach to music as well. Ultimately, I feel no seperation between sound, music and the activities of daily life. This is a place I aspire to live in as much as possible and refer to this somewhat vague concept as the 'soundcurrent'.