“I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I’m doing…the emotional reaction is all that matters as long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood.” – John Coltrane
My interviews last year with Seasons (Pre-Din) and Blanck Mass were both heavy on the idea that emotion can be channelled through the use of drones and ambient soundscapes – not a view that is held by many people I know who invariably pass it off as unfeeling noise or, as my girlfriend likes to remark on an almost nightly basis, “that fucking shit.” So I did a lot of thinking in 2011 about just what it was that attracted me to the music I found myself becoming more and more immersed in. I know for sure that when I hear, say, “Chernobyl“ off of the Blanck Mass record, I definitely experience an emotional reaction even if I can’t necessarily explain why. When I received Derek Rogers’ superb The Exhaustion of Emotion tape I thought it would be the perfect chance to test my theories, and it didn’t disappoint. Okay, so the word “emotion” is in the title – it kind of announces it’s presence before you’ve even switched on your Walkman – but there’s got to be a reason for it being there, right? After the publication of my review Derek very kindly emailed to thank me and mentioned how happy he was I’d touched on the subject of emotion in his music. Seizing the chance to get this damned thing sorted once and for all, I responded with an interview suggestion. Could we get to the bottom of “The Emotion Thing”? Read on to find out…
Hi Derek. Before we get deep into the emotional side of things, can you tell me a little bit about your working process? The way you get started and so on…I want to get a grip on how your music emerges.
More often than not, I’ll be listening to some piece of music and some small part of it will impulsively command me to stop the recording and immediately go to my little home studio and begin my own recording. Some ideas take days or even weeks to form in my head before I feel I can express them properly, and some are more sporadic and “in the moment,” so to speak. I tend to try to spill things out fully-formed rather than piecemeal a series of movements together – especially if I have a show to prepare for – so I’ll absolutely spend hours tracking and deleting take after take until I’m satisfied enough to document the session and deem it complete. I’m extremely fortunate to have a small circle of friends with whom I can share these recordings, people whose ears I trust completely and who allow me to utilize them as a sounding board to really trim the fat and make sure the tracks reach their full potential.
When you say that a piece of music can give you the urge to start recording yourself, does it matter what this music is? I mean, could it be anything that just makes you drop stuff and go, “Wooah, gotta get some shit down…”
Yeah of course it depends on what the music is, and more often than not it’s from fairly conventional recordings – maybe some Coltrane piece I’ve listened to a hundred times, or Tom Waits, or some weird Sonic Youth live recording, or The Replacements. I actually don’t listen to much “cassette-scene” music. I mean, I do, but in small doses. It’s not my usual go-to for casual listening, and in my head at least I think it keeps my music free from being influenced by that stuff. There’s certainly some amazing music being made these days by artists in the cassette world, but I listen to and edit so much of my own music for sequencing and whatnot all the time that I like to keep it as fresh as possible. I’m pretty ridiculous though – at least twice I’ve settled in for a 50+ minute AMM listening session and stopped it 8 minutes through because I felt compelled to record. I’m completely impulsive.
When you’re deleting and editing and “trimming the fat” as you say, what is it exactly that you’re looking for? Is it a sound, a feeling, a sense that you’ve committed to tape exactly what you wanted?
The most important elements I try to incorporate into everything I do are movement and texture. I get bored very easily, and I never want the listener to feel bored when listening to my work. I suppose that’s what I mean by “trimming the fat” – I’ll deem a track “finished” and then send it to Eric Hardiman or a number of other friends for feedback, and from there the track will be done as-is, or it’ll need a bit of tweaking to dig out the heart of the piece.
In September 2010 I had the amazing fortune to open for Fennesz at Emo’s in Austin. Obviously he’s a hero of mine and to cite him as an influence would be an understatement. I remember coming off stage after playing probably the best live set of my career (which was recorded and later became Side A of the Informal Meditation tape), just hoping Fennesz had seen my set. Unfortunately he walked in just as I was breaking down my gear and table in the green room, but he came over and started asking questions about my set-up. This led to a full-blown 20-minute conversation exploring into the idea of channelling emotion through abstraction – which is what I think he does so brilliantly, and is exactly what I strive to do in my own work.
You mention “digging out the heart of the piece.” By that do you mean pulling out the emotional core?
Something like that. I think moreover I mean just making sure the piece is free of any extraneous parts – an intro that goes on too long, etc. – and making sure the recording presents an accurate depiction of my intention.
Okay, so let’s talk about the emotional side of your music. Emotion is not something that will necessarily jump out at people when they hear your work or any other music in that sphere. Like my girlfriend, for example – she struggles to identify with anything without lyrics. But I think it’s more than just that…anyway, I reviewed The Exhaustion Of Emotion and loved it. For me it was almost like you signified emotion in the title and then used the music to suck it out of the listener. You forced us to recognise it was present by attempting to remove it from us.
I think I know what you mean. The aspect of drone music that originally drew me in was this otherworldly ability to completely remove me from the reality of time and place – and it allowed me to deeply focus on the music alone in ways that conventional music didn’t lend itself to. Hearing Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports and Discreet Music when I was 18, and especially discovering the works of William Basinski some years later planted the seeds that fluidity and repetition could bring to light an emotional core that was initially somewhat hidden. Jason Lescalleet’s Music For Magnetic Tape is one of the most affecting pieces of music I’ve heard in years, and at times almost reduces me to tears. Years later when I began recording music as a solo artist, I never made a conscious effort to emulate anyone else I’d been influenced by, but I cannot deny their stronghold on what I do today. I’m not a trained musician, and have never claimed to be, but I have a deep appreciation of music and a strong ear for what chords go together and what textures make the most sense in certain pieces, and that’s the core of my strength. I deeply appreciate anyone who finds any semblance of emotion in my work but at the same time I’m completely baffled as to how to explain it. At the end of the day, we’re dealing in abstracts, and everything is relative.
Is emotion important in everything you do? With things like The Exhaustion of Emotion it may be obvious what you’re going for, but on stuff like Fifteen Second Pauses (For Bill Shute), which is at the noisier end of the spectrum, it can be hard to pick out a beating heart. It can create almost involuntary responses in the listener but perhaps not necessarily emotional ones in the classical sense. Although I suppose it comes down to how you define “emotion”…in which case, do you aim to create or invoke particular emotions in your work?
Yes, I’d say I strive for some semblance of an emotional response in everything I record. On Fifteen-Second Pauses (for Bill Shute) I do use some harsher textures at the beginning of the piece, but as a whole I wouldn’t consider it a “noisier” piece, especially compared to my earlier noise guitar-oriented work. That being said, I don’t find noise and emotion as mutually exclusive descriptors for a certain piece of music. Albert Ayler’s “Our Prayer“ and “Truth Is Marching In“ - two of my favourite pieces of music ever – both contain heartfelt melodic passages and those of sheer chaotic catharsis, and are some of the most highly emotive pieces I’ve ever heard. My work doesn’t hold a candle to that of Ayler, but that doesn’t mean I’m not trying. As far as invoking particular emotions, that’s completely up to the listener.
Would you ever think “fuck it” and just release a shit-ton of noise?
No, not without purpose.
Is anyone getting away with that do you think?
Not that I could speak to.
Or look in the eye…
The mp3 you sent me the other week sounded great, by the way. Have you been going through it and ringing the changes?
Oh yeah, I played a live version of that at [LA's] Catnap the other night and unfortunately it didn’t record, but I was happy with it. That one might see release somewhere, I don’t know.
What’s in the pipeline for 2012 then?
I have a handful of releases in the can right now. I’m most excited about my LP, titled “Saturations” coming out on Pete Fosco’s Greenup Industries label. I’m also doing tape releases with Space Slave Editions, Fabrica Records, Moon Mist, Paramita Recordings, Prairie Fire Tapes, Car Wash Tapes, Hobo Cult Records, Magik Crowbar, and a rare CD-R release on A Beard Of Snails. Pretty exciting stuff!
That’s a hell of a lot of stuff coming up. You’re mighty prolific. It must come quite easy to you…is it weird how some people take years between records?
I am prolific, for better or worse. My restless nature keeps me busy recording constantly, and I’m always trying to work against complacency to express myself truly without being stagnant. In some ways I envy those that take years to release their material, but ultimately that’s not the way I work. Gotta keep moving…