A few weeks ago Foxy Digitalis was proud to present the video première of Bil Vermette’s ‘View From Above’, the first piece of music to emerge from his new Archives I compilation on Eric Hanss’s Field Studies tape label. Vermette, something of an underground synth legend, has been working in music since the start of the 1970′s but has only recently started to receive the recognition he deserves. Thanks to Hanss, who was inspired to contact Bil after reading an article about him in the Chicago Reader, Vermette – a geographer by trade – finally has the chance to step into the spotlight.
I was privileged to chat with Bil and Eric about Archives I, Bil’s extensive back catalogue and the possibility of future collaborations. The conversation took place via email over the course of several days.
How did the Archives I release come about?
Bil: Eric contacted me in the summer of 2010. I believe it was through Myspace. He asked if I would like to perform on the radio program at University of Chicago.
Eric: I was serving as Program Director at WHPK 88.5FM at the University of Chicago at the time and was voraciously reading a column Steve Krakow (best known for his psych’d out excursions as Plastic Crimewave but also an excellent historian of ground-breaking Chicago musicians and an overall deep head) writes for the Chicago Reader, ‘The Secret History of Chicago Music’, which profiles musicians who “somehow have not gotten their just dues.” When I came across the profile Steve wrote about Bil I was floored. Self-realization through meditative synth tapes had become a big part of my life; I was studying geography and suddenly here is Bil before me: a geographer and local synth wizard. I had to meet him.
Does being a geographer influence your music at all Bil? Or do you use music as an escape from your work?
Bil: I do believe my work in geography and geology, mapping and travel had a lot of influence in my music, especially the first 3 CDs and Katha Visions. Going as far back as 1979 with the Rainforest project (a whole reel of rainforest inspired pieces and also the name of my production company) I have been influenced by my interest in different areas of the world. That would especially include landscapes. Even though my music influence is based in ‘space music’ I somehow always gravitate to the more terrestrial. Katha Visions, [the shorter pieces on]Voyager, Emocean, Geophobia and disk 2 of Galaxies are mostly focused on landscapes. Obviously, the title of Geophobia even addressed that. I still like to do the space-oriented music (oddly astronomy is considered an earth science) and plan to record [and] release more music in that vein as well.
Eric, when did you first hear Bil’s music?
Eric: I found a copy of Katha Visions on the now defunct blog Circeotones (I think) the day after I read the article about Bil. It blew me away; from the abstract patterning within the cover photo to the transporting, sojourning synth passages and conjured environments. The whole thing felt like a discovery that could have been so easily missed, a hidden turn from the main path. When I finally got in contact with Bil and got him into the WHPK studio for a performance on Pure Hype, a show that features live bands in-studio, [it] seemed impossibly fortunate to me. It [was] like a perfect confluence of events. The tape proceeded from there. I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with Bil, and that his personal music crossed over into mine.
Bil, synth music is maybe bigger now than it’s ever been. Are you a fan of today’s musicians?
Bil: I honestly haven’t heard a lot of the recent e-music, but the slices I have heard on Soundcloud etc. have impressed me. Given the variety of tools available nowadays, it appears that most have decided to go with a certain type, be it vintage analog, virtual synth, iPad/iPhone or even ‘home-made’ electronics. I’m just glad to see young people continuing to compose and expand the horizons of what can be done. I will be heading down to Moog Fest next month, so hopefully will hear some of the newer stuff people are doing. So yes, I am a fan. I’m a fan of Air and Röyksopp especially.
You were self-releasing your music before, right? Do you prefer to keep a low profile?
Bil: I can’t say that I didn’t want wider exposure. My marketing was limited due mainly to my budget of time and money. Of course I would have liked to get my music out to a wider market, just so people would get to hear it at least; but I never was looking for fame. Now, with the internet, it’s a little easier to get more exposure and I am doing that with Soundcloud [and so on]. I’m also looking to see if I can maybe perform in Europe in 2013.
The time is clearly right for your music to make an impact with so many people releasing synth music now.
Eric: Bil’s music is attractive to me in that it is so independently realized. Where we now have the ability to pick, choose, and order musical ideas from a dizzying array of periods and places, Bil had to make do with what was locally available and newly conceived. In that way he had to largely create idioms from within, to look toward something as-yet undefined. That has a beautiful purity to it that I know a lot of meditative synth players strive for, myself included. Bil seems to be in a familiar orbit that he created for himself, which is what I had in mind when I picked the tracks for Archives I from the hours of material Bil gave me. We should all be so lucky to arrive at that place.
In an odd way it’s almost like musicians of Bil’s era were ahead of their time, as opposed to it being a retroactive, throw-back thing.
Eric: I don’t think anyone within the synth community looks at what they do (it seems to me that most listeners also play) as a throw-back, that’s just not how the aim of the music is structured. ‘Throw back’ seems to imply looking backwards and only backwards. I don’t think anyone looks to Popol Vuh or Iasos and says ‘That’s the only way to do this.’ The imagery or the musical language directly used by or surrounding earlier outer-limits players is instructive to look at and expand on in our own pursuit of making it into our inner zone.
Where do you situate Bil on that musical time line?
Eric: I hesitate to situate Bil at any one point on a time line. First off, he’s been active over several decades, incorporating new motifs and machines into his work (Bil definitely challenged me to think more seriously about the merit of newer synths – there’s more to life than analog polyphonics and detuned oscillators). Second, he doesn’t really fit in with a specific cadre of musicians other than his close collaborators, although his music bears strong similarity to other operating at the same time. He’s simultaneously of and out of time.
Bil: We made music with what we had available or could afford. I always had the music in my head and used whatever I had at that time to try to create what I was hearing. Other times, it was just playing an instrument and taping whatever came to me/us at that moment. It was a lot of improvisation.
Tell me a little about your work if you don’t mind, Bil. From Katha Visions up to the present.
Bil: I’ll do it by year if you don’t mind…
[In] 1985 I went MIDI with [my] purchase of [a] Roland JX8P and later [a] Casio CZ01. [We] had the record release party at Wise Fools Pub in Chicago for Katha Visions, [and my] first live solo performance. [I made] home recordings on 4 track TEAC. [In] 1988 I compiled recordings from 1985 to 1988 onto a limited private cassette release [called] Observances. [There were] two live performances at a local coffee house [and I] still have many pieces unreleased from this period. In 1992 I contributed [the] intro and outro to an official cassette release by Tom and Chris Kastle; See the Sea: Songs For Young Sailors. In 1994 [I] recorded and released Voyager and started a string of live performances, mostly at Borders Books and Tapes. In 1995 [I] recorded and released the CD Emocean [and] in1997 [I] recorded and released the CD Geophobia, comprised of pieces composed for live performances or initially were live improvisations. [In] 1999 I joined A Bunch of Teeth with Tom & Chris Kastle and Dos Boys [with] Milton & Myron Jenkins. We did a demo CD and numerous live performances between 1999 and 2001. [I] also guested on several of Tom & Chris’ CDs as well as [a] Dos Boys CD and cassette during this time. In 2006 [I] released BeyondeHereBe… and recorded Galaxies IV. In 2010 [were my] first live solo performance[s] since 2000 – a house concert in my basement studio followed by one at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and then a live radio performance at University of Chicago and another in-house performance in the basement studio. [There were] more live performances and home studio recordings [in 2011]. [This year] I released my CD Galaxies IV and started compiling [a] CD-r of solo VCSR material, [plus] more home studio recordings…
One thing I can’t help but notice is an increase in productivity both in the mid-nineties and from 2005 up to the present day. It seems to correlate pretty directly with the upsurge of interest in electronic music of those periods. Is that something you’ve been aware of going on around you?
Bil: It was purely coincidental. During the ’90s I had a lot a inspiration from live performances and a bit of money to release the CDs. The late ’90s and early ’00s were taken up by A Bunch of Teeth and work was busy. Also, the music industry was changing so I was deciding on how I was going to release new music. I finally gave in and decided to record BeyondHereBe…, which was pretty much composed in the studio as we went along. Galaxies IV was recorded on the heels of BHB mostly from ideas that came up but were not right for that project.
What are your hopes for Archives I?
Eric: My primary hope with Archives I was to introduce Bil into the tape/synth scene in a more prominent way. There are people who are aware of Katha Visions from limited blog exposure and the handful of LPs that Ben Hall found and that Keith Fullerton Whitman made available through Mimaroglu. I wanted to create a kind of Finding Aid that helped those listeners dig deeper into Bil’s discography, and to make his music more visible to those who had not yet discovered it. I was certainly inspired by Lieven Martens’ and Christelle Gualdi’s success in passing JD Emmanuel’s music on to new audiences and getting him to perform live again. Collectors have had knowledge of private-press synthesists like Bil, Iasos, and JD, but Lieven and David Toro (who has reissued some excellent Iasos records) have used their role as tape label operators to affect some very positive resurgences. Maybe someone like Important will come along with a Katha Visions reissue.
Bil: I very much appreciate Eric’s efforts of getting my music more attention. I hope that there are people out there who haven’t heard it yet may get a chance to and maybe even like it! As I said, it was recorded a long time ago so even to me, it has a different feel since I am so far removed from it.
Eric: Archives I was also an opportunity to get to know Bil and his music better, [and] to look beyond just Katha Visions, which I was engrossed in. There’s a tendency to fixate on just one particular record that fits a closely circumscribed sound, feel, or time. Through Archives I I got to hear the evolution of Bil’s process and musical life in depth. I think that’s key for this kind of deeply personal and curious music.
So is Archives I just the beginning of a more expansive project?
Eric: Bil and I have discussed Archives II very briefly, [so] that is definitely a possibility. [T]here appears to be a great deal of tape I haven’t heard yet (Bil, I’d LOVE to get to take a listen to Environ-Mentals). Bil’s got a lot of NEW music, like Galaxies IV that he just released, [so] I don’t want to deflect too much attention from that. I would love to be able to do a tape of his even earlier material as part of VCSR. What would you say to that, Bil?
Bil: I may have an extra copy or two of Environ-Mentals on cassette, [with] Rainforest on the B-side. There is definitely some VCSR that I would like to see a bit more distribution. The pieces John, Dave, & I did in the summer of 1979 especially. Most of them were recorded “live” onto one track very late at night or early in the morning but the sound quality isn’t bad after all these years. They were always personal favorites of mine and when I hear them, I am transported to that time.
Bil Vermette’s Archives I is out now on Field Studies