Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ou Ou [Interview # 131]

1) What does the term "ambient" mean to you, in terms of music?

Brian Eno said that he likes ambient music because it allows you to interact with it from any position. That is, it can be either a passive or an active experience. It's as good for close scrutiny as it is for long walks. The downside is that ambient music can often be thought of as background music. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's limiting. It can be difficult for people to see the appeal, especially if they're used to more active listening. Every one can understand the effect of listening to wind in trees or the sound of running water. The sound of a pressurized airplane cabin is incredibly satisfying and musical. It's just a matter of being mindful of those sounds and finding a spot for them. You just have to listen a little harder.
For our new material, we've been incorporating a lot of field recordings and quieter, more unconventional sounds. We have two ambient EPs, Rhythm and Blues 1 and 2. They're counterpoints to the records. We remove all the rhythm, restructure the sounds and build them from scratch. A lot of the same tones are present, sometimes hints of the same melodies, but they're entirely different songs.
2) Who would you say are some prime examples of ambient music, musicians that people who didn't know what ambient music was should look into first and foremost?
Well, Eno for sure. Most modern ideas about ambient music come from Eno. Before that, La Monte Young was working with drone, but his stuff always kind of antagonistic. He'd play a sustained chord for an hour to test people's endurance. Eno is largely responsible for the second half of Bowie's "Low," which was probably the first exposure many people had to ambient music. It's so moody and evocative, and has as much emotional punch as anything on the first side. "Station to Station" had come out a year before, so it must have been a real shock to a lot of people. The mid-70s were the golden age of ambient. Kraftwerk's "Ralf Und Florian" had come out, as had the Harmonia albums. The Germans really had it all figured out.

There's been a lot of ambient music we grew up with. Both of us are big, unironic fans of Enya. She's been using the same keyboard patches for twenty years, God bless her.  But she knows how to use layers and atmosphere. We heard the Cocteau Twins, The Orb and Stereolab all at the right age. Trent Reznor did the soundtrack for the video game Quake in 1996, and it was scary as hell.
Steve Reich, while not an ambient artist by any measure, has been a huge influence. He's done a lot with process music. He'll set up a piece and let the parts wind themselves down, like a clock releasing its tension. We work a lot with loops, and since they're not in time, they'll repeat and grind against each other in surprising ways. Sometimes, when we're coming up with ideas, we'll get loops going on all of the loopers and just let them go. After minute five, there'll be a moment where they intersect in a beautiful way. You try and recognize that spot, grab it and build on it.

More recently, William Basinski has been a big influence. Famously, he was recording his existing tape loops onto his computer, and soon realized the tape itself was starting to fall apart. The bits of silver halide that "made" the loop started flaking off of the plastic reel. The result is that the highs would disappear, and then parts of the bass, and then the middle would start to fail. His most famous series is the Disintegration Loops. Each one is about six seconds of music that is repeated a few thousand times. It's absolutely mesmerizing, and he shows a lot of restraint by touching it at all. He just lets them run their course. Philip Jeck's last record was really good. Mountains' last few albums have all been excellent as well. Julianna Barwick makes beautiful records that are mostly composed of just looped vocals.

3) Your newest album came out this year on Already Dead Tapes. Do you feel like cassettes are the superior form of musical playback?

Maybe not superior, but they work for us. Our records tend to be short. They fit comfortably on one side of a tape. We have the program repeat on the second side. We approached Already Dead Records because they deal almost exclusively with small-run boutique tapes (they've also done some vinyl). Tapes aren't ideal for every band. They evoke a certain part of our upbringing. We are both over thirty, and some of our formative records were bought were on tape.  Not to mention the dubs and mixtapes. 

We like the way that, like records, cassettes are a single program on each side. Skipping around is difficult, so you're more likely to end up listening to an entire side, start to finish. For our drone EPs, cassettes are especially conducive to that type of music. As you play it, the tape stretches slightly. Over time, it starts to warp. Bands that have strong vocal mixes would suffer from this aspect, but it helps highlight different aspects of our songs. A bit of wow and flutter never hurt a drone track.

On a more practical level, tapes are cheap, especially if you're doing them in small runs. Josh and Sean from Already Dead have a real strong aesthetic, and their tape designs are successful because they print fifty of them rather than a thousand. When you hit those numbers, you have to start cutting corners in order to get the wholesale price down. These guys are doing this in their spare time and hope to break even. Josh's design for "Geocities" employed transparencies and overlays that wouldn't be cost effective in larger runs. We do make some CDs, though nowadays they're only for promo purposes. Already Dead puts download codes into each tape, so you get to have a beautiful physical artifact as well as the ability to download a high quality version to listen to on whatever device is most convenient. And all for four or five bucks. It's win-win.

4) If I cannot access my Geocities account, who would I see about that?

As far as we know, Geocities is only available in Japan. The older pages are perhaps still archived in the Way Back Machine. Travis ran a Geocities site for the band Slint when he was in high school. It's out there somewhere. Patrick had a few sites in that era as well, but tended to use Tripod. Otherwise, all questions about Geocities should be directed to the malevolent Mailer Daemon entity. However, those conversations come at a steep price.

5) Is being from St. Louis like it is in the movie Meet Me In St. Louis?

With big feathery hats and musical numbers? Totally. One of St. Louis' other cinematic claims to fame was as the desolate wasteland in Escape From New York. The reality is somewhere between the two.
6) Final thoughts, shout outs, tour plans, etc...??

Touring is difficult for us.  We both have full-time jobs and Travis is in the midst of grad school. It's hard enough to get time to record. We can't do much more than a weekend regional jaunt at this point.  In the meantime, we're working on our fourth record. It's going to be a doozy, and we're as excited to be in the band as we ever have. It's been really satisfying, and we're really excited for people to hear what we're working on. That being said, we're keeping it all under our hat for now. It'll be out next year. Next month we're putting out a remix album of songs from "Geocities." We've got a lot of really great versions from some of St. Louis' best electronic, experimental and hip-hop artists. We're putting it out through a collective called Far Fetched (http://wearefarfetched.net/) that is a big melting pot of electronic, noise, rock and hip hop. We've been wanting to work with them for a while, and this is the right project. It's called "Biocities" and will be out September 1st.


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