A new album, out August 7th, 2020!
Whenever I make a new album of music I am so proud of it; it always feels like the best music in the world, the culmination of everything I have learned to write and play and everything I have heard and studied up until this very moment. I’m so happy to release it, and I expect of course that everyone else will feel the same way. For awhile it was like, there are albums and then there are albums, I guess depending on how public you expected them to be, how outside, how much money to spend on even making the album (as if you could recoup in sales these days), not just money spent on recording but whether it was made into some physical form. More precedence and importance to LPs, CDs, than cassettes, say—but even just making CDs—so for a while we could pretend that there were albums more important than others based on production values or format. But I could still make private, more inside, albums of what I was currently excited about, that I could release even on CD for a while, but then only digitally. For example, albums like Echopraxia or Artificial Relics that are sort of sets of etudes, or the music I’ve done for dance companies or other milieu. Every time, I feel like ‘this is the pinnacle’. Though, of course, once I release it out of my private listening zone, into the outside world, I rarely come back to it. I think lots of artists are that way, once they’re done with a piece.
Having no other representation, all of my releases are on Bandcamp and only digital anyway, and on my own I’m losing the distinction between things like major releases and minor releases. And now after being stuck isolated for a while, the things I’ve been working on are even more inside, which makes me think even more that it’s the best thing at the moment. I’m losing touch! What music is worth releasing and what isn’t? I have favorites in both inside and outside types of music from many artists, interior and exterior, private and public music. And often the most inside music is the most “outside” stylistically, and vice versa. But maybe the music I make in my room might work somewhere else too, in someone else’s room. And of course I expect that everyone else will feel the same way about it!
Usually, of course, there is little response beyond “huh?”, and as time marches forward, musicians and any managers/agents/publicists that may have existed are left home in our shacks in the dusty wilds of the overcrowded and leveled plain of the internet, unnoticed by the masses of virtual humanity scrolling by, getting that front page of only google-related “search engine optimized” content in any search for anything anyway. And as I age out of the pop demographic, what music I do make becomes less relevant to the church-of-what’s-happening-now in music journalism (as such) and popular culture in general, and only of mild interest to ‘a small circle of friends’ as Phil Ochs put it. Yeah, yeah, we know. No matter—it’s art, man!
Regardless, I always feel like I should explain myself in order for you, the rare potential listener, to understand what I’m doing with this music and understand why I would make this music, why it is important to me. Why would I do that? Well, I want you to get the joke, too!
That said, this particular album is some weird-ass music. It’s definitely not destined to be one of my more popular albums. Late night listening, maybe. Take it with you on a trip. For me, this was a means to focus, a meditation.
So, a manifesto, then, like some 20th century art movement? I don’t have a good branding name for my “style”, and in fact my point is only that this is music, within the world of what “music” is or may be. I do like deconstructing in order to reconstruct, and as much as people tend to disregard post-modernism these days, I’m still way into it. Meta always makes the best jokes best.
Since NME and Rolling Stone aren’t ringing me to answer these pressing questions, I’m gonna be proactive and answer them myself. I’ve had some time to think about it.
So, yes, this is being released during a time (Summer of 2020) when everybody is simultaneously stuck inside and worried about the outside, and that period has enabled me to finish this project, but I have been recording and working on these tracks for about two years now, so the “meaning” is not embedded at all in the angst of pandemic.
The meaning is embedded in the superimposition of the inner and outer, the listener and the listened-to. The beauty of it, the joke, is context. Sampling was a great idea, right? The earliest tape collagists knew that context was where the art lay. Pierre Schaeffer presenting a steam train in a concert hall forced a listener to hear it out of its own locale and try to hear it as sound in and of itself. It’s the same idea as John Cage’s famous piece 4’33”, where the audience hears a pianist not playing the piano, meaning that what they are listening to is the space that they are in. Music is where you find it, right? In the ear of the beholder. This of course is why I love tape collage, or musique concrete, as an art form, and I happily still adhere to the idea that these sorts of pieces should be part of albums* that also contain other types of music (e.g. “Phenomenon and On” from 2017’s “Superfluity”, digitally mis-titled as a “Mystery Bonus Track” by streaming, um, “services”). And as an avid field-recordist, I’ve been using collage technique in studio music for almost 40 years, superimposing outside recorded items on top of studio-recorded sound, or turning the outside inside. Or vice-versa! I remember presenting one piece in the UC Santa Cruz Electronic Music Studios for some course final for Gordon Mumma’s class (maybe 1983?) where I had made it sound as if all the sounds were happening in the other room, like we were trying to hear the “music” through the walls.
In the latter 1990s I worked for Dane Davis doing sound for film in Hollywood, (I loved it and only ended working for him to go play music on tour with Sparklehorse) and it gave me the opportunity to up my game in the field recording world, and thus to make more music from ‘non-musical’ recorded elements. You can hear it a bunch on the album “Scissors and Paper” from 2000, and of course on all the Chaos Butterfly albums subsequently—I consider them, as electro-acoustic music, to be highlights of psychedelic music, though for certain my definition of what psychedelic music is is not standard among genre enthusiasts. I have always used a lot of recordings of rocks, whether or not that (rock) was the genre. They have nice resonances. I guess you’d consider this sampling still, though sampling’s use in popular music by this point in time, well, the idea has eaten its own tail: mostly people aren’t making musical sounds with out-of-context recorded sound, but strictly sampling ‘music’ to make more music. Or worse, shoving its head right up its own ass, sampling specifically only, say, dance music to make specifically more dance music. Self-referentialism can be fun, of course. Meta can make a good joke.
If there’s humor in it.
And, of course…
As a recording musician, you always have many options with respect to how to capture sound—and none of them are real. You can never record what you hear, how your ears hear things. So we fake it, usually: in recording studios we try to hyper-accurately record perfect performances of people playing instruments, but then we filter the frequency spectrum and dynamically compress the recording so that it’s easier to hear what we want to convey, or at the very least to highlight the aspects of a sound that you want to be more present in the mix. And music, that undefinable aspect of sound, can come through regardless: you could use an ultra-high-fidelity recording of a shitty instrument or a shitty recording of a beautifully made and perfect instrument. People react to sound as they hear it, as Mozart laughed at the Steppenwolf listening to Händel on a transistor radio in the Magic Theater, pointing out that as marred as the mechanism was, the spirit of the music still came through.
Whatever that is.
And we as a culture go through trends in what is the appropriate sound quality, hi-fi, lo-fi, distortion, “clean”, whatever. Similarly, of course, popular music goes through what it accepts as harmonious, each new dissonance becoming normalized with repetition, from the ubiquity of the blues-and-then-the-Beatles’ sharp-ninths over major chords to the distortion of the electric guitar, the electronic machines making rhythms, vocal-fry singing styles, etc, etc. Nothing is sacred, period. It’s all just sound, in the end.
I’ve written before about why I like seeing/hearing/playing improvised music, a lot of which boils down to the fact that a human being is doing something and we are hearing that. Often, in real time, …though of course recording can allow a listener to experience this post-facto. The element of human action is what I am into. The element of human action in the moment, in time, as it happens. Being an improviser, of course, is to “be” the music, to try to let yourself go into that psychological flow state where you are not thinking so much as doing, acting and reacting to make the sounds as it is appropriate to be to be making music. Again—whatever that is. As a player, you try to prepare by learning as much as you can about how to play the instrument so that you no longer have to think about what you’re doing in order to do it. Or not! You might just use something that makes sound that you don’t know exactly how to operate to make sound with it in the moment by the sheer will power of physically expressing your living actions! Children, of course, do this all the time, and they make some great sound!
I mean, I also like hearing music where people are physically and consciously acting in consensus to make a pre-planned series of sound events, e.g. playing a written piece of music or a song, simple or complex. That’s powerful, right? Orchestras with all those musicians working together to create a sound, it’s amazing, large choirs (back when we had these things, remember that?), and bands, rock bands with the amplification to strengthen each part of the mix. All funneling these myriad sounds into a single unified whole. That’s amazing, and can make it easier for a listener to abandon their self and be absorbed into the whole of the sound, to be a part of it, a piece of the whole, being the whole.
I’m currently profoundly missing that human interaction. (As are we all, currently in 2020.) And it’s giving me the opportunity to get back to my recordings of rocks and ice and other sounds, to re-examine these recordings I’ve made while trying and not trying to make music. Many of these tracks are the result of either purposeful misdirection in the process of recording or trying to make sound while not specifically making music. Let me try to guide you through this as a listener. I recommend headphones, and either an environment of nature where you might be fooled into thinking that not all the sounds were coming from the headphones, or maybe you are just wrapped up in a blanket in bed and drifting off with your eyes closed. Smoke a big fatty and let’s go.
There are only two songs in this collection, really. The first track, “All Signs Point to You’ll See” and a cover of Chuck Prophet’s “Rider or the Train”. I say “songs” in that they have sung lyrics, really. And they have Kelly Atkins singing on them also. “All Signs…” does place this album critically within this pandemic time period, at least lyrically, but that was not intentional. What was intentional was recording the instruments and voices from near and far, and allowing the sound of both types of recording. Obviously I left the doors open. And put multiple Kelly-voices together into an single room. The electric bass track is recorded acoustically, a microphone close to an instrument intended to be amplified. That mic track was then amplified. Allowing the outside inside, etc.
“Till the Cows Come Home” and “Real World Lessons” are based on recordings of our neighbor in the Swedish countryside, who does Kulning, which is an old Swedish form of singing that allows the voice to carry extremely far out across lakes and valleys so the cows can hear it and find their way back home. And for as much as I talk about the sounds of human action, when I get inside the computer I try to make it make sound that I have far less control of! Going back to Chaos Butterfly, for example, I was coding a lot of SuperCollider and Max/MSP computer programs to “interact” with us, the musicians, and produce sounds that we didn’t, based on our sounds, but not exactly controlled by us. And I’ve coded many “musical boxes” to make “music” by themselves as such. Just because, right? I mean if I’m so into seeing, hearing human beings and their actions making sound, what about enjoying music made not by human beings? Can I still enjoy it as music? (The answer is yes, I do. Ear of the beholder and all.) So anyway, here you have two different things grinding up the sounds made by a human being. One is a computer program regurgitating a human kulning. The other is children (a different kind of computer program) having heard kulning, trying it themselves, and getting a learned response!
“Responsibility For One’s Actions”, “Standing Apart From”, “Marking Time” are all the result of recording when I had been so deflated by the idea of making music in the he modern world at all, essentially given up. In my mind, I know that what I do is pointless, and the very fact that I dedicate my life to it is ridiculous, given that it does not benefit me nor my family in any realistic way, as the neo-liberal world likes to point out. (And I fully admit to not being very realistic about much in general.) Regardless of my actual ability to play the guitar, for the most part all I could manage at this point in time (these were recorded initially in the summer of 2018) was to lay the guitar on the ground and rub rocks on it. (Rocks always sound good.) Or set a fidget spinner spinning on the bridge. Weirdly, to me anyway, music still happened.
“Pulse Check” checks my pulse. I’m alive, right? Apparently also I am not a machine: despite playing with an unforgiving delay time, I fluctuate.
You may be wondering at this point, if you are listening, why is there a pulse or a drum machine in these pieces anyway? That’s a very good question and I have several very good answers for you. The first is that our kulning neighbor’s husband happened to have brought an ancient Baldwin Tempomatic drum machine back from the US some years back and had no use for it (no use! I have a 110v transformer!) But more importantly: a pulse can mark the time passing. That’s one way you might know that it’s music that you’re listening to.
What is music, again? Usually it’s sound that happens in time, over a specific amount of time (4’ 33” for example). As Jaques Attali theorized in his book
“Noise: The Political Economy of Music” (1977/85), humans probably used music as ritual demarkation of the duration of a ceremony of some sort (he posits sacrifice) and similar to Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra, it becomes separated from its initial use and takes on a life and meaning of its own. But as the ear of the beholder can hear it anywhere, I like to be specific and point out that very ear: that pulse you hear? that’s you, the listener, listening. Usually in a reverberant space, as if it were an internal monologue, like they do in movies: reverb means it’s inside. Like your brain has reverb on its internal sounds, bouncing against the inside of your skull. It does, right?
I mean, even the Grateful Dead played blues songs initially, simply because there had to be a song to play to have something to improvise on. Otherwise what the fuck? Now, I love a good 45-minute Dark Star as much as the next guy, but often to fill time when playing a concert there has to be something to play. Like, say, a song. A song, in this context is just a time limitation, a structure for the musicians to relate to while they explore sounds. I mean, a song in any context is that too. But my point in having the pulse in all of these pieces is to point out to you that you are listening. I could record birds singing and overlay a track of pulse, and suddenly the context is changed. Or, you could be like Messaien and transcribe the birds and have Yvonne Loriod play their songs on a piano in a concert hall, and again, the context is changed and the listener is forced to understand that they are listening to something, something specific, planned by human action, and not just hearing sounds happening in space and time.
I guess I should point out that, yes, I also studied composition with Pauline Oliveros at Mills College about 20 years ago, and the impact of her ideas of Deep Listening have made huge impressions on me. Compare what I’m droning on about here with her ideas of actively making sound and actively imagining sound, especially in the context of improvisation, and her writing about processes of attention and awareness when listening and playing sound and music, remembering what sounds have happened, hearing what sounds are present. So yes, in essence this entire album is an exercise in Deep Listening.
Moving on, there is the exploration of inside spaces. As with “All Signs…”, the idea of recording loud sounds (amplified electric guitar, for example) from close and from far away has been used in rock music recordings for years (like Jimmy Page’s recordings of guitars and drums on Led Zeppelin albums for instance, creating large spaces and tight spaces.) I like a good “room recording” mixed in, …sometimes. Or in these cases, mixed up. Often, you can hear the player’s actions beyond playing their instrument, like stepping on an effect pedal switch in the space. I think I’ve included these sorts of sounds (and incorporated many types of sounds) as far back as “Scissors and Paper” (2000) but I think that before that point I mostly tried to exclude sounds that weren’t “the music being recorded”. For the most part, anyway. I can hear pedal switches in the room on “Little Blue Fish”, for example.
Anyway, earlier this year, in late January 2020, after a tour of the US with Camper Van Beethoven, I stuck around Athens, GA for a week in the hopes of recording some new ideas with other band members, but circumstances left me alone in an A-Frame building—but with all the equipment. The building had two floors, one of which essentially overlooking the other, so naturally I set the amplifier at the bottom and the microphones at the top. I did manage one recording session elsewhere, with Cracker’s rhythm section of Bryan Howard and Carlton Owens, a jam session that I took home and jiggered into this album, the Transatlantic Space Connection: one track here is titled after a joke I made about throwing a party at the A-Frame I was staying in. The bass line suggested it to me, even, I still sing along “party at the a-frame” to that bass line. Hence, on “Outside Inside” we have the “Afterparty at the A-Frame”, apparently a more introspective or even sullen social gathering. Well, not a gathering at all. I was alone. This continues with the “Explanatory Gap” and “Eventutation”, which are concerned with the idea of a thing happening at all.
“Blow Up My Crocodile” is really about human reaction, now isn’t it? There are several recordings here, the mics on the balcony are there to record the weather or car-bys (as we called them in the film sound world, cars going by across the stereo spectrum), though once placed, the recordist goes in to make coffee. Also, there’s mics up to record some guitar improvisation. The child, however, sees that on the balcony is her deflated pool crocodile, which obviously needs inflation. But then, what’s this? Live mics that are moving meters? I need to sing, obviously!
“Icewater” has some of my favorite-ever recorded sounds, the ice in the Mäler lake breaking up and moving around in the wind. Ice is probably as good as rocks. I do tend to use a lot of ice and rocks in my recordings, but hell, they sound cool. And “Snowfoot” is the sound of feet walking in snow. I did loop a section for consistency, but I was walking pretty steadily there, wasn’t I?
“Rider or the Train”, well, mostly this is about the sound of the near and far mics on the guitar, the open door letting the thunder in, the song itself about the conflation of all these things. I think I had recently played a show with Håkan Soold opening for Chuck Prophet and the song was still floating around in my head. Also at the time I was in some serious pain and approaching a back operation, (successful) trying not to be on any opioids (also successful, within two weeks after the operation.) I made up some extra words, sorry Chuck.
The guitar solo in “Rider or the Train” is, again, just rubbing rocks on an electric guitar on the floor, but it almost sounds like an honest blues-rock solo. Completely unintentional, but there you have it.
“Distant Thunder” is just that, and “Vectored Space” is also just that. These are very literal, just that drum marking the time against listening to the world around you, pointing out to the listener that you are here, listening, and the world is here being itself.
You may drift off to sleep now.
*This idea of course was prevalent when people started using the studio as an instrument when making albums of songs, and many groups in the 1960s seemed to be quite aware of the inherent psychedelia of tape music as they heard from the modern composers coming out of the 1950s (members of Can, for example, were students of Stockhausen), but by the time I was 7 and had heard “Revolution #9” on the Beatles’ White Album, Jefferson Airplane’s “A Small Package of Great Value Will Come to You Shortly” on After Bathing at Baxter’s and Zappa & Mothers of Invention’s “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” on We’re Only In It for the Money, I assumed every album was supposed to have a post-modern audio deconstruction of itself and environs. I didn’t hear much more of it in the pop/rock music world until Game Theory’s “Lolita Nation” (1987) and of course I tried to carry that flag on my first solo album Storytelling (1988) —to disastrous response.