Interview: Willamette Week 1999

Appeared in Willamette Week, April 1999

An Interview by John Graham

A quick starting question: Many of the most famous ambient artists over the years (Eno, Hassell, Koner, etc.) have a sort of manifesto, a statement of purpose, or theory of sound that dictates both their working process and the music that results. Here’s your chance to make a sweeping statement about your music, or to deny any interest in having such a manifesto.

My music is meant to take listeners on a trip to strange and beautiful places.

Speaking of Eno — who I know is one of your favorites — I’ve always had a problem with his theory that ambient music should be almost unnoticeable, blending seamlessly into the background. I’ve never felt that way about your music, even the most quiet ‘isolationist’ pieces. Do you intentionally make your music more ‘active,’ or is that a consequence of your personal style (as indicated by your comparatively visual and energetic live shows)?

I’m interested in drawing my listeners in and maintaining their interest with subtle detail, evocative moods, rich ever-changing textures, and slow internal movement. My work has most to offer upon close listening.

Some ambient music strives to create a sense of place or conjure a distinct mental image, while other types (like ‘isolationist’ or the type Mike releases on Hypnos) are purposefully abstract. Which description (photographic or abstract) do you think best suits your music, and what goes through your mind while working on a new piece (or a live performance, for that matter)? Do you find your music more emotional or intellectual?

I like to think of my music as conjuring a strong sense of place and as being very visual. My process, whether in studio or performing live, involves meticulous layering, combining sounds and placing them spacially in a three dimensional space. My ears and feelings guide me. It’s an intuitive process. Eventually a landscape develops, evoking different moods and places. These worlds are rather ambiguous, but definitely not abstract. They’re soundtracks for the imagination.

Your new albums are distinctly more rhythmic. In particular, I find some of the songs on Swimming (esp. ‘Threads,’ ‘City Stream,’ and ‘Above,’ the last sounding vaguely to me like a remix of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’) verge almost on pop, though without the recognizable structures that such a description would entail. I know Mark Spybey wanted to explore his more mainstream demons on the latest Dead Voices On Air CD; is that your intent also or just a side-product of your developing taste in rhythms? If you do wish to become more structured, would you ever be interested in pursuing a more profitable career in the ethnic-ambient-techno market that’s popular right now (with artists like Deep Forest, Delerium, etc.)?

I’m interested in making music that’s both challenging and accessible. Over the years I’ve been developing my ability do create compelling rhythms. With “Swimming”, I chose to make an album that’s rhythmic throughout, using the grooves to propel my surrealistic sound worlds. My focus has always been primarily on sound itself. My aim of late is in finding ways to maintain that focus, but to place it within a form that might appeal to a larger audience. My next album, “Ride”, due out next month, brings me closer to that goal. It involves several Seattle musicians playing more conventional instruments such as drums, bass, guitar, cello, and bass clarinet. This is interwoven into my more characteristic textural backdrop. There aren’t any modulations within the pieces, so they’re still not “songs,” really, but landscapes involving instruments and rhythms more common to pop music.

You’ve said that you no longer really use the industrial/mechanical sounds that punctuated your earlier work. What caused that shift?

I tend to be influenced by the sounds I hear around me. My earlier albums, like “Cities in Fog”, where made after moving to Seattle and spending time listening, often from a distance, to the industrial sites near my neighborhood. Then I began spending time in the mountains and desert of eastern Washington and found more of those kinds of sonic environments working its way into my music. Later I went to Southeast Asia and exposed myself to a great array of exotic new sounds. These shifts seem to come about as an organic, natural response to where I am at any given time in my life.

I know you spent some time in Southeast Asia. Where and how long? How, specifically, has that influenced your evolution of sound?

I spent six months there- 3 months in Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok) and 3 months between Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos. I moved around quite a bit and experienced a wide range of environments-huge crowded cities to very rural places- tiny villages and nature reserves. I also heard a lot of gamelan music, which I love. But I didn’t really go for music. In fact, I went to get away from my music, my life in general, to take a break and immerse myself in world unlike that of anything I had experienced before. It was a great trip.

When I returned and began making music again, I completed an album I had begun before travelling, called “Changing Skies”. Once finished, it became readily apparent that my experiences there had found a way into the music, particularly in terms of mood, atmosphere, and sonic space. It’s a very personal recording. When people who haven’t heard my music ask for recommendations as to where to start, I suggest this album.

You claim that many of your nature sounds are sampled from other CDs (like sound effects records), and not attained through your own field recordings. Do you see any irony in that, or do you feel it somehow compromises the ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ sound in any way?

As much as I enjoy listening to my surroundings, I’ve never felt compelled to record them myself. I’ve never acquired good enough portable recording gear, for one. These recordings interest me only as source material to manipulate in the studio. It’s much easier and immediate to snatch something from a sound effects record.

Tell me about some of your commissioned works. How and why were you contacted to do music for films, theatre/dance performances and installations? What did the music sound like, and did you change your techniques to make that music?

Many people who hear my music for the first time ask me if I’ve ever done music for films. Visual artists are attracted to that cinematic quality in my work. The music for these projects is quite similar to my recordings, not surprisingly, though a bit more spare, perhaps, so as not to impose on the visuals. My technique is somewhat different, however, in that I’ve got something concrete to work off of, so the process is much more conscious.

In a similar vein, what will your upcoming collaborations sound like, and how did working with others like Roderick and Krist affect your style of making music?

Krist Novoselic was looking for someone who could create strange soundworlds to accompany his surrealistic films, and to compliment the group of bass, drums, and vocals he had already formed. And he wanted to be able perform this live. So it was a very comfortable arrangement for me.

Another collaboration I’ve recently completed is an album I did with Sky Cries Mary vocalist Anisa Romero. Anisa had been asked to sing and perform for an unusual performance piece involving Andalusian horses, Spanish riders and dancers. It was presented in a horse arena in Olympia. My role was to create some rhythms and enhance and manipulate Anisa’s rather operatic vocalisations. It was one of the most bizarre and interesting performances I’ve ever been part of; seeing these incredibly beautiful and graceful horses move and dance to our music was amazing. Anisa and I struck an immediate chord and decided to make a CD together. It’s called “Hana” and should be out next month. It’s a rather meditative work, moody and dreamy, multilayered. About half of it has rhythm, the other half is very slow and deep.

Since you studied meteorology in college, and make music that’s atmospheric, how come you’ve never seemed to actually record weather patterns and use them as a sound source? Would you ever be interested in making those ‘singing sculptures’ which make various eerie sounds when wind blows through them in different directions?

There are definite correlations between my background in meteorology and my music, but I don’t think about it in a pre-meditated way.

We both live in the Pacific Northwest, which has fairly moderate weather –no big blizzards, tornadoes, or even thunderstorms, really. Just sunny, mild summers and damp, drizzly winters. Yet I’ve always sensed a very atmospheric (using both the musical and meteorological meanings of the word) feeling in your songs. How does the climate affect your music? Do you make more music in the winter or summer? (I’d guess winter, since your music is more liquid and aquatic than that of, say, Steve Roach, who lives in the desert and makes ‘dry’ sounding ambient — but that’s just me.)

Although sounds in my environment influence me rather directly, I think the role meteorology plays in my music is rather obtuse. My interest in the weather is more experiencial than academic. I like to watch it, be in it, feel it, see it change and move across the landscape. I like the different moods that come with various meteorological phenomena, particularly those which occur just prior to more intense events like tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes etc.. I hear and think about my music in a similar way; but it’s mostly in retrospect that I see the correlation. You’re right, the weather here is pretty undramatic. The immediate weather influences me less than my memories of growing up on the east coast and in the midwest, where such storms occur. It’s in how I remember and imagine those moods that becomes part of my music.

I don’t tend to compose any more or less during any given season, nor do I noticed any difference, interestingly enough, in the qualities of music I make during the different seasons. I’ve composed some of my darkest works during the sunniest months, and vice versa. It’s probably a reflection of my general personality. Winter here, though admittedly long and dreary, doesn’t effect my personal mood much.

Yes, my music is wet, but it’s a warm, tropical wet. Again it’s more involved with my imagination and my interest in visiting such places, where distant thunder is frequently heard amongst the clamor of buzzing insects.

Since your work seems to be moving away from darker drones towards brighter, more percussive pieces, do you find the recent spate of reissues from your ‘80s days to be a drag on your development? (Of course, any added income is nice, but I wondered if perhaps you felt they might limit you from evolving in the eyes of the public.)

Quite the contrary, actually. It’s been good and educational to revisit that period. My less refined work reminds me to stay loose, not to get overly critical, and to keep experimenting, trying new and sometimes wild and seemingly senseless approaches. Regardless of the kind of music I’m making, I find that this actually helps me to evolve.

And the dreaded ‘what’s due in the future’ question: As you pursue more rhythmic avenues, does that mean you’ll completely abandon the industrial/ambient side of your work (the kind showcased on the excellent Sombient ‘Drone’ series of compilations)? Or will you strive to expand your focus without sacrificing the previous elements of your work?

Your last question says it well-“striving to expand my focus without sacrificing the previous elements of my work”.

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