Originally published at www.acloserlisten.com
Sound Propositions is an ongoing, semi-regular series of conversations with artists exploring their creative practices and individual aesthetics, conceived of as a counter-narrative to a dominant trend in music journalism which fetishizes equipment and new technologies. Rather than writing copy that can just as easily have come from a press release or a consumer electronics catalog, this series tries to take the emphasis away from the ‘what’ and shine light on the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ You can find the previous ten interviews, as well as additional articles and features, here.
Discovering the music of the 12k label is a revelation: minimal, often quiet music that is thoughtful yet not obsessed with perfection or rigid formalism, music that still demonstrates a careful attention to detail and is enjoyable to listen to. Unconcerned with any trend or style, release after release serves to document each artist’s singular vision. Often necessitating multiple listens in order to take hold, trust in the label is essential. United by a shared aesthetic, the packaging often emphasizes natural photography and minimalist design. Founded by Taylor Deupree in 1997, 12k remains a one-man operation. A strong sense of community animates the label, a shared ethos and aesthetic. Deupree’s solo work initially set the tone for the label, which has evolved in often surprising ways alongside his own work.
Over the past two decades 12k has published records from many of our favorite artists, such as Kenneth Kirschner, Frank Bretschneider, Seaworthy, Giuseppe Ielasi, Machinefabriek, Stephen Vitiello, Marcus Fischer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Steve Roden, Federico Durand and countless others. From 2000-2011, Richard Chartier‘s LINE imprint operated as a subsidiary of 12k, before striking out on their own, often focusing on physical editions of sound art installations by artists including Bernhard Günter, Mark Fell, Alva Noto, Janek Schaefer, William Basinski, and Tu M’. Careful readers will note that many of these artists have been profiled in Sound Propositions before, and many more come up time and again as important touchstones. Critics have used various terms to attempt to encapsulate the sound of these artists, yet they all seem inadequate, if only because the slow and organic growth of the label cannot be confined to any presumption of style. Two decades is an impressive accomplishment for any label, let alone one documenting such an idiosyncratic group of producers and musicians. Small in scale, the label has earned its reputation through patient and humble cultivation. Though the 12k discography boasts releases from world-famous musicians and sound art luminaries, a 12k artist is just as likely to be a bedroom studio tinker. 12k has established itself based on the consistently high-quality of its releases, earning the trust of its listeners.
As the force behind 12k, and as an artist who embodies many of the values Sound Propositions was founded on, it was only a matter of time before Taylor would be profiled in this series. But my personal interest in his activities also relates in part to our shared ties to Westchester county, NY. For some time now 12k has been based in the small town of Pound Ridge, NY, in the northern reaches of the county I grew up in. As a teen I was deeply involved in the local hardcore/punk scene, and my friends and I would play local teen centers and VFW Halls and organize shows in loading docks or wherever we could convince to let us use their space. Although there was a “scene” in Westchester we mostly played in areas further from the influence of New York City. Discovering a prolific label focusing on experimental music not terribly far from home, removed from the hype (and extreme rents) of the city was actually an important influence as I found myself drifting further from conventional rock music while in college. Released in 2006 just as I was graduating, Deupree’s Northern celebrated his move from bustling city to wooded retreat. Learning that this strange, beautiful music was being produced from a location just 25 miles from my father’s apartment was somehow a perfect analogue at that time in my own life (although I don’t think I actually heard it until it was re-issued in 2008).
Deupree’s career as a musician begins with the electronic trio Prototype 909 in the early ’90s, known for their experimental, acid house music relying on a wide array of analog equipment and digital sequencers, ensuring that their live sets were varied and unpredictable. (P909 were a part of Sonic, an imprint of Instinct Records, known for releasing early house music records from Moby, before he went mainstream.) Concurrent with P909 Deupree was releasing more ambient solo albums under the moniker Human Mesh Dance. When P909 parted ways in 1998, not long after the foundation of 12k, Deupree’s solo music began to evolve into the more fragile, ambient soundscapes which still characterize his music today. Outside of 12k, he has released albums, both solo and collaborative, on such venerable labels as Raster-Noton, Mille Plateaux, Ritornell, Sub Rosa, Spekk, Room40, and/OAR, and more.
Often grouped in with strands of electronic music closely associated with the use of the laptop as a sound surce, in fact Deupree has not used a laptop live in over a decade, and never made music with one. In a 2012 interview with Pascal Savy for Fluid-Radio, Deupree explains,
I think I can thank Steve Roden for what I do now. I was touring with him in Brazil maybe 10 years ago and I had my laptop and Steve brought only some microphones, delay pedals and nothing else. … The laptop to me is this box that has my emails on it, 12k’s accounting on it and all this stuff. It feels just bloated and heavy and in a way this box represents just so much of my life and it’s perhaps too much of my life. Because I know that behind the screen of Ableton Live, there is all this other stuff, all these other programs etc and it’s just mental garbage. So when I can play with my pedals, my microphones and instruments, it’s very pure: it’s all I’m using to create. So maybe that makes sense. But also I don’t want to go down as being anti-computer.
Also a prolific collaborator, he’s made music with the likes of Richard Chartier, Tetsu Inoue, Frank Bretschneider, Kenneth Kirschner, Solo Andata, Seaworthy, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Stephen Vitiello, Marcus Fischer, Stephan Mathieu, and the list goes on. One might note the recurrance of so many of these names already mentioned just a few paragraphs ago, but I reiterate them here to emphasized the overlap between Deupree’s collaborations and the artist who have worked with 12k, compounding the personal and communal spirit of the label.
Duepree’s most recent collaborations include Twine with Marcus Fischer (who will be the subject of our next installment) as well as the inaugural EP of the THESIS PROJECT, a new label which brings together artists who might not otherwise think to collaborate. That record sees Deupree’s instrumental augmented by S. Carey, a singer and drummer best known for his work with Bon Iver. (The Thesis Project will be the subject of a feature to be published later this summer.) Deupree’s latest solo work is Somi, released earlier this year (and reviewed by our own Jeremy Bye), though as he explains below we can expect much more from him very soon. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Do you have a current favorite piece of gear you’d care to talk about? Not necessary from a technical standpoint, but as a piece of equipment that you’ve developed a kind of relationship with.
Oh, that’s a tough one. I’ve got a few, I think. Although on one hand everything I’ve chosen in the studio was for a specific reason and carefully thought over, and favorites do go in and out. But, as for favorites that have stood the test of time over many many years I can safely say that both the Jupiter-8 and original Nord Lead 1 are my favorite synthesizers. The Jupiter was given to me by my uncle who was the original owner in the early 80s. It has a story and a lot of soul. I find that it fits so well into mixes and for my style of sound and it’s been on so many of my recordings. There is also something incredibly interesting about the first Nord Lead. There are sweet spots on certain knobs where it just gets this incredibly organic character. It doesn’t behave like a digital synth to me, or at least I don’t ever think about whether it’s digital or analogue, it doesn’t matter, it just has an amazing, simple, yet mysterious sound. I had one back when the first came out and eventually sold it, but a few years ago the musician David Sylvian gave me this and it’s the one I use now. It sits proudly above the Jupiter-8 as my two synths with the most soul.
I also gravitate to my Hohner Pianet T electric piano or glockenspiel for a lot of sounds and loops. I like the immediacy of the Hohner and it’s sine-like quality. It sounds great plugged direct through a tube pre or even mic’d to pick up the mechanics. Since so much of my music is built on sine tones, or very simple bell-like tones, the Pianet is a great starting point, with little fuss. And, actually, the new (ish) little Yamaha CP gets a ton of use. It sounds surprisingly good and is sometimes quicker to integrate because of it’s line level output and variety of sounds.
I’d also have to say the modular synth has become something I’ve really bonded with, but it’s much slower because of the complexity and amount of time it takes to come up with something. But it’s a true instrument, and a very organic one. It’s a language.
Perhaps none of these things would be used as much if it weren’t for my looping pedals, perhaps among the most important pieces of gear that I use, that I rely on and use all the time. My current favorite being the EHX 22500 because it offers two asynchronous loops and varispeed control. The asynchronous looping is something really hard to find in hardware loopers and it’s really a must for me.
One of the tensions I’m interested in exploring through Sound Propositions is the difference between working as an artist in the studio (producing records and compositions in “fixed,” recorded form) and as a performer. So, how do you approach recording versus performing? How much do you conceive of these as distinct practices, and how much do they overlap for you?
They overlap very little for me. The studio is my true home and love. I’m a chef, a gardener, an architect, a builder… not a performer. I like to take my time with concepts and sound creation and routing and effecting. To have to take that on the road and do what i do in the studio in a very public 30 or 40 minutes can be daunting and something I’ve struggled with for many years. I’m not content performing with a laptop or relying on pre-recorded sets. From the early days of performing live with an analogue 3-piece techno band (Prototype 909) live performance for me has always been about being live, and improvising, so anything less I’m not happy with. For the past couple years I’ve developed a compact live system that lets me take plenty of control and improvisation, and mistakes and imperfections based around a 6U modular synth. I accompany this with a looper, a cassette deck with tape loops, and OP-1 and maybe some other bits and find that I can comfortably improvise new things every show.
You know, the question has always been: How do I distill down the studio experience into an easy-to-transport live situation… without a laptop. That’s been the struggle for many years. The eurorack modular with a variety of audio processing, sampling and sine wave oscillators gets me there in a very physical, tactile way.
When I meet new people in town, or parents at my kids’ school and I tell them I’m a musician, the first thing they ask is either “what kind of music do you make” or “what instrument do you play.” Neither of these are easy questions to answer. Most people glaze over if I start mentioning words like “experimental ambient” and the best I can reference that they may have heard of is Brian Eno. I usually try to avoid that question. As for what instrument I play…. that’s a tough one, too. I don’t really “play an instrument” I “use instruments to make sounds.” And that just confuses people, too. Sometimes I’ll go on about how the recording studio itself is my instrument and that’s probably as accurate as it gets. It’s my laboratory and my place to dream and be in my own space, ideally free of external stresses. Very different from a live performance.
I’ve been writing recently about how the “stage” – both literally and metaphorically – has generally dominated the live and recorded presentation of music. Do you have any thoughts on alternate presentations of live work (eg. Francisco Lopez blindfolding the audience, or multi-channel configurations with flexible seating arrangements, etc)? Have you ever presented prepared works in a “live” setting that breaks with the standard performance model?
I’ve played some interesting spaces. Japanese temples, a crater in Mexico, things like that. And while a lot of my performances can probably be considered a bit less than traditional, from a stage point of view (temples, galleries, sitting in the middle of the audience, etc) I don’t think I’ve ever gone so far as to really challenge the standard performance model. For me this would have to be done for a very specific, conceptual reason, that makes sense with the music, or it comes off as gimmicky. It’s one reason I rarely perform with visual projections, because I’ve never had the time to create a visual presentation that precisely matches and interacts with the sonic portion of the show. I’ve seen too many performances where the visuals really have nothing to do with the music and it comes across as an insecurity or afterthought. Sort of like “I know I’m boring to see up here, so, here, watch some TV while I play music.” Because, yes, experimental, ambient music performances can be “boring” to see… but I stress that it shouldn’t be about seeing, but about listening. So I stand by the lack of visuals as a way to allow people to close their eyes and direct more attention to their ears.
It’s difficult performing the quiet, often fragile, music that I do. You really have to have an audience in the right frame of mind and the right setting for the venue. When it all comes together it can be quite magical.
One thing I have always wanted to do was perform for many many hours overnight as a sleep concert. A few artists have done this and I think it would be a great situation to explore my use of repetition and being allowed hours for sounds to unfold.
Regarding the sleep concerts, this seems to be becoming a bit more common lately. I’ve heard about similar events in a few different cities, probably the 24-Hour Drone in Hudson, NY being the highest profile. But when I lived in Montreal some friends used to organized overnight drone concerts that were really nice, starting in 2011 or 2012, I think, and they still happen periodically. I’m sure we could put you in touch 😉
Can you talk a bit about your studio diary series? How do you approach the daily imperative to create?
I started that in 2014 fairly specifically as a way to learn my growing modular synth better. I didn’t restrict it to the the modular, but it was certainly focused on that most of the time. Basically it was a way to try to force me to allocate time every day, even if it was just 10 minutes, to noodle around and experiment. My schedule gets really scattered and it’s hard to find time to set aside for music creating sometimes, so this was a way to try to organize that a little more. It ended up being more successful than I had thought it would be. Some of the sounds I created and techniques I learned really inspired me and have gone on to become the basis of new compositions. As a pool of sounds to draw from when I want to start something new it has been really valuable. After a year of it, I can say it was fairly draining. To try to keep up with it, yet not get stressed out about it. I continued it in 2015, with a few less entries, but still a lot of great material. Everything is up on soundcloud [2014, 2015] and people have really enjoyed listening to the diaries, almost like albums, even though the entries are generally just sketches and little experiments.
These diaries stemmed from a project I did in 2008 where I took one Polaroid photograph every day for the year. That was really fun. I carried the camera with me every day and it forced me to look at the world from a photographer’s point of view every day. the resulting photographs actually were exhibited in Tokyo and it was great to see them all together in a gallery. In 2009, not wanting to repeat the photography (and Polaroid film had just become very difficult to get) I started a daily project where I made a field recording every day. This has also lead to folders full of sounds that I’ve drawn on quite a bit. Mostly nature sounds from around my home and my travels.
I didn’t do anything from 2010 to 2014 when I started up the studio diary. And this year, 2016, I’ve been writing single words or short phrases every day into small notebooks. It’s difficult as I’m not used to using words or prose as a creative tool, but it’s sort of why I wanted to do it.
It’s difficult doing daily creative projects and I feel guilty every day I miss an entry, but I also think it’s important not to turn them into stressful projects, but to still take it seriously and do your best to do the task every day.
As this year  starts to wind down I have often thought what, if anything I will do next year.
It seems to me like that your daily creative projects, although you may exhibit them or draw on them as “raw material” in the future, are less about their utility and more about the discipline of maintaining a daily creative practice. The word “practice” has probably become overused. I think the attention to process may result in a degradation of the final work, if the attention to the process becomes too rigid and formal, as if the resulting work is just a byproduct whose character shouldn’t be a concern. That said, emphasizing the process as practice opens a space for thinking about work in a different way. The character of the work becomes linked to the character of the life of its author, and this link to me seems to be an ethical one, though that might be an overstatement. In light of your daily projects, I wonder what your thoughts on this are.
For starters, my daily creative projects were/are about both maintaining my daily creative energy as well as being useful in the future for compositions. Unless I’m particularly exploring a process for process sake, I want these sounds to be interesting and usable for me, I don’t want to make something I don’t like.
I think it’s true that purely process-based work can be, in the long run, less interesting. I think my most direct relationship with this type of approach was in the early 90s in the birth of the “microsound” movement when we were first using the computer itself as a musical instrument. A lot of the work we were doing was seeing where we could push the boundaries to or how far we could deconstruct a sound. It was, at its heart, an entire genre based on process. That isn’t to say there wasn’t a lot of lasting and interesting music made in those days, there was, but a lot of it was rigid and formal.
But those experiments had to happen and lead electronic music to where it is now where the computer, still used as an instrument, has taken on a much more mature and varied sound.
Can you describe your working process a bit more? For instance, do you begin with an idea for a process, or a particular sound, or some particular idea? I’m sure it varies, but maybe you can walk us through another piece.
I actually started a new piece of music last night that’s in its very early stages, so perhaps I can step through what I’ve done so far.
Although I didn’t do a Studio Diary this year, I’ve been going through much of the same practice, just not posting them online. I’m always creating sounds and playing around in the studio and try to keep the recorder running to capture interesting moments. So, I keep folders every year on my computer of sounds that I make that are potential inspirations for new works.
So, I was going through a folder of sounds from this year and came across one I had done that was some electric piano loops (from my Pianet T) going through the Intellijel Rainmaker module. I had recorded this quite beautiful meandering semi-random sound for about 18 minutes. I just came across this again the other day and it struck me as something nice that could be the basis of a track. I threw it into Pro Tools and started improvising some more loops from a Nord Lead into a looper pedal on top of this base and came up with some quite usable overdubs.
That’s about where I am in the piece, it’s the very early stages. I will add a few more layers in this manner, listening to what I have and trying to imagine frequencies or colors that I feel are missing. Once I have an overall mood I’ll start to carve away at the layers and staying to sculpt an arrangement. Although I often don’t feel my music really has starts or ends, I tend to think of them as environments that just exist and I’m set down in the middle of it trying to find my way.
The composition and editing process can really go on for a while and take a lot of drastic turns and changes. On my new album Somi, which is now out, I had finished it all but after living with it for a few months I felt it was too clean so I went back to each song and recorded it onto old portable cassette machines and back into Pro Tools via the tiny speakers on the cassette recorders.
How has your approach changed over the years?
I think it’s always quite evolving depending on what instruments I’m feeling at the time or what’s happening in my studio. After using a lot of software in the 90’s I’ve really come to a point where I’m not excited much by software synthesizers or things like the iPad as a musical instrument. In a way I’ve gone back more to how I made music in the late 80s, although Pro Tools has replaced the cassette four tracks (though I still use those, too!).
Because my studio is always a work in progress things change year to year simply based on routing, wiring, consoles, etc. My studio is at an amazing place now, the best its ever been with so much connected by patch bays into a small API console with a very good work flow into and out of Pro Tools.
I use synthesizers as much as I always have but the last 10 years has seen more and more acoustic instruments and use of tape machines again. I’ve got 5 or 6 reel to reel machines in various states of functionality, as well as cassette decks, I’m completely fascinated by the ability we have to blend techniques from various decades and eras of recording history. I love how the dusty sounds of old contrast modern sounds and how I can dust and dirty up clean sine waves to abstract them, to move them further into imagined territory.
I’m more interested in the studio as a single, breathing organism now than I ever was before.
To zoom out a bit, to ask a more “journalistic” question, can you describe what led your interest in making music? Do you have any early memories of sound, as listener or recorder, that stand out to you?
I absolutely have early memories of sound, one in particular was listening to my mother use the vacuum cleaner downstairs which I could hear through the floor of my bedroom and it would help me sleep. Also, growing up in the 80s video arcades, I think gave me a soft spot for electronic sounds at a very young age.
We also have a very musical family going back a few generations. Some amazing string authorities, hobbyists (my grandmother played bagpipes), serious musicians (an uncle was the drummer in a fairly well known rock band in the ’80s and ’90s and a great great grandfather who started a well-known instrument company in 1853. I suppose music was in my blood from the start.
In the early 80s when I was introduced by new wave and early electronic music I knew, from the age of 15, that I wanted to be a musician. I bought my first synthesizer and have been obsessed with learning the craft ever since, every day. In the late 80s I first heard Eno’s “Thursday Afternoon” and Eno & Budd’s “The Pearl” and that sort of changed my outlook on music forever.
Attending university in New York (for photography, but with a full understanding I was going to pursue music, I just didn’t want anyone to teach me music) was a big influence on my early professional career. Coming up in the city with all that it offered and the acid house and club scene in the late 80s into the early days of techno and the birth of the rave movement. As I grew older and matured the call of those early Eno records was too strong and my music took an ambient turn where it still goes today. Now, living in the country, surrounded by a lot of nature, is a huge influence on what I do.
On that note, I’d like to just take a somewhat personal digression. I was born in Westchester county, and lived there or in the city until moving to Montreal in my mid-20s, in 2009. I remember being pretty shocked when I first learned the label was based in Pound Ridge! I suppose it makes a bit more sense now, the space and natural beauty and the relative proximity to the city, but at the time it seemed so incongruous. To me, as a teen, Westchester seemed a difficult place to be, and not necessarily where one expects to find a label as interesting at 12k. Now in my 30s I feel the pull of family and friends and the city again but, for me, it remains a difficult place. I’m curious to hear more about your experience growing up there, and cultivating your label and so on.
I didn’t grow up in Westchester, but in northern Connecticut (though I had family in Westchester). Northern Connecticut at the time (and still now) wasn’t exactly a hotbed of alternative culture, but in high school we had the usual posse of weird kids, skaters, punks, goths and such and that was my crowd. I’d hang out in Boston or the college towns of Amherst and Northampton and also make frequent trips to NYC to go record shopping or see shows.
When it was time for college I only wanted to be in one place, and that was New York City because I knew I could get my music career started there. It worked, and I ended up living in Brooklyn for about 20 years before longing for the quiet of country again and relocating to Pound Ridge. 12k was well established when I was in Brooklyn but has certainly changed since the move up north. I suppose as much as me growing older as well, with age comes deeper insights and focus and the nature I’m surrounded by obviously plays a big part in my art. However, living in New York City was crucial to me and I absolutely would not be doing what I’m doing now if I didn’t live there.
You seem to keep really busy mastering releases, for 12k as well as many other labels and artists. Sylvain from ini.itu recently sent me some records and you’ve worked on them all. You’ve mastered records for Michael Gira, Alva Noto, Hauschka, Library Tapes, Kate Carr’s new tape … I could go on. Along with Giuseppe Ielasi and James Plotkin, you seem to be the go-to studio for mastering work in our corner of the musical world. Is there a different “hat” you wear as a mastering engineer, approaching tech differently? Can you talk a bit about the craft of the mastering process?
I actually started mastering, without really knowing it, when I worked at Instinct Records (as the art director) in the early 90’s. Because I had a studio and was recording for them they tasked me with editing and compiling compilations for release, which they did a lot of. I would simply sequence and level tracks from different releases and create the final production masters. It was rudimentary, but no less and important part of the mastering process. Sometimes I’d have to make small tonal tweaks or whatever.
Maybe about 10 or 12 years ago when I was at a point of being able to start buying more high-end recording equipment I quickly made the connection between the microsound/experimental bedroom-musician community and the need for the best possible audio quality. The music we were making relied so much on *sound*, the quality of sound, the deepness and detail of these small, often quiet noises. I basically then decided to start taking mastering more seriously and with really nice analogue equipment could offer mastering services to these artists who maybe recorded on their laptops in less-than-ideal situations, but with complete passion. To be able to treat these recordings with beautiful outboard equipment made a difference and I got more and more requests to master artists’ records. It basically grew quite organically into a business that I took more and more seriously and still do to this day, to the point where my studio is designed and based around, primarily, a mastering situation, because the acoustics are of utmost importance.
Which brings me to the second half of your question… yes, mastering equipment and studio design is highly different than the writing/production side of things. For mastering you need accuracy, translation and a balanced, even sound. Without it, you can’t do your job well, so my studio first and foremost is designed this way. This is less important, but not less helpful, for a writing/production studio so I benefit from it when I’m doing that as well.
The equipment is also quite different. Mastering gear is usually very natural sounding, accurate, made well, expensive. And when you’re mastering you really have no other choice than to use the best because you’re responsible for other people’s music, and that’s a huge responsibility that I take very seriously. If I wasn’t a mastering engineer I very likely wouldn’t have the studio or half of the equipment I do because with the creative side you can afford to be experimental, dirty, wrong and all of that beautiful stuff. Mastering you need to respect the artists’ vision and it takes a highly controlled environment to do that correctly.
However, it’s not easy running two different kinds of studios in one space, because both mastering and songwriting require slightly different tools, very different routings and basically two different sets of equipment. I have it set up about as ergonomically as I can, with fairly good interconnectivity between the two practices. I suppose in an ideal world my mastering studio would be in a different space than the writing studio. Some day, I’m sure. I do long for a writing room where acoustics are secondary and I can go 100% vibe with the design and architecture of the space and then take mixes to the mastering room to finish. Dreams are good!
There are also many misconceptions about the mastering process, and numerous services and applications that aim to simplify the process and make it affordable for hobbyists. So what gear do you use, what’s your approach, do most artists give you directions or free reign? Do you have a preference to your DAW, or your hardware, etc?
Mastering is such a song-specific process. Every song and mix has to be evaluated differently, for what it is and has its own set of processes and needs. To relinquish this task to an online algorithm is not only risks ruining your hard work but misses one of the most important points of mastering which is having an unbiased second set of experienced ears in a properly designed room and monitoring situation hear your mix.
Many people associate mastering with simply loudness, and if loudness is all that you’re after then an online place like LANDR can be a quick fix. There’s also the misconception that mastering is expensive. It’s really not. I mean, some of the big major label engineers can be very pricey, yes, but there are so many equally, or more talented mastering engineers out there working with beautiful studios working for independent artists that are very reasonably priced.
As for mastering gear, I won’t go into specifics on every piece, it can be found on my website, but I can say the three most important things to me are my room, speakers, and digital/analogue conversion, and in that order. Without a properly designed room, the best speakers in the world aren’t going to be accurate but when you do have a well-designed room great speakers are things of beauty. Digital conversion is also incredibly important, and while I do employ nice high end conversion (a CraneSong HEDD), convertor technology has evolved such that you can get really workable conversion for not a lot of money.
With those three things, and experienced ears, the actual knob-twisting gear is less important to a mastering engineer. A good engineer can use plug-ins as well as he can outboard equipment. It really comes down to personal preference as well as what makes the job the most fun.
Perhaps a controversial question, but I wonder if you have any feelings about the relationship between art and politics (broadly conceived). Is there a politics (or an ethos, perhaps) to your work? Put another way, 12k and the kind of work you do seem to be driven by more than just commercial concerns. And considering the society we live in such an artistic labor of love, a dedication to qualities that can’t be measured or reduced to an exchange value, seems to be significant.
There are definite, obvious huge connections between art and politics, and many important ones, too. Huge artists speaking out and performing for great causes. However, I have always very intentionally stayed away from politics in my music. To me politics and religion can be so controversial and damaging that I really just want to keep negativity out of my music. There is enough pain and conflict in the world and plenty of other outlets to get political discourse. And artists out there who are a lot more knowledgeable than I am about these things. I prefer my music to be an escape from all of that.
I always like to ask about an artist’s favorite work outside of sound art or music. What books, visual art, plays, films, etc you are inspired by, or find common cause with? Are their artists working in other media (past or present) that you feel an aesthetic kinship with?
I really enjoy modern architecture, from mid-century, people like Mies [van der Rohe] and Philip Johnson to modern day architects like Tadao Ando, Rick Joy and others. I love the space in modernist architecture and the combination and blurring of indoor/outdoor spatial relationships. But also how the clean lines and materials are juxtaposed in the randomness of nature, I find a lot of parallels to my music.
I also find inspiration in minimalist art… the usual suspects of Donald Judd, LeWitt, James Turrell, etc. I like their organization and use of space and work that really leaves a lot to the viewer to imagine.
One of my favorite artists is Andy Goldsworthy. His use of nature and ephemerality are really influential to me.
And of course I listen to a lot of other music as well and quite a bit outside of my own genres. From the music of the 80s i grew up with to modern folk (Great Lake Swimmers is among my favorite bands) to the music of my peers.
You’ve worked with Marcus [Fischer] on a number of releases now, most recently Twine (2015). Can you talk a bit about your working relationship in general, and Twine in particular?
Marcus and I met for person in the first time after starting a friendship online when he came to visit me and we recorded our first album In A Place Of Such Graceful Shapes. We really see eye to eye on a lot of things yet have enough different interests that we have a lot to share, teach and bring to the table when we work together. We’ve become close friends and that’s the most important thing for a collaboration.
Twine, while only our second album together, follows a lot of recording-but-not-releasing music since Graceful Shapes. We’d be together often, whether its at each other’s houses, or in Japan or Iceland, and often recorded and jammed together, but nothing we did struck us enough to release. We were sort of in a similar situation after a few days of the time we were trying to make Twine, felt in a rut a bit, trying to do something that wasn’t just repeating what we had done previously. We usually worked with quite elaborate setups of equipment, but when we left a single, mono tape loop with the sound of a bell going over and over in his studio late one night we found our answer. Laying there wondering where to take the music it dawned on us that it had been playing in the room for the last hour. We went with it, taking an extremely stripped down approach where every song on the album consisted of only two mono loops with only one or two instruments on them. It was very inspiring to us and we finished the album with a renewed energy.
I am also curious to hear your thoughts on collaboration in general. You’ve mentioned that you feel at home in the studio, in that sense you’re more a ‘studio artist’ than a performer. But you’ve also collaborated quite often with a variety of other artists. Do these collaborations mostly take the shape of studio collaborations? Do you approach each collaboration uniquely, do your collaborations and your solo work seem to be a similar practice or do you see them as relatively distinct?
I love collaborating with other artists because I always learn something. I like when artists visit my studio because they see my equipment differently than I do. It’s easy to get stuck in habits working with your own gear, and when someone else comes over they have a really fresh approach to it. I prefer to work in person with my friends, it’s much more enjoyable and the albums become very much about the time spent together. Looking back on many of my recent collaborations like Twine, or Wood, Winter, Hollow (with Seaworthy) or Perpetual (with Ryuichi Nakamoto and Illuha), or especially Between (with Marcus, Simon Scott, and Illuha) it is impossible for me to separate those recordings from the memories and place of making them and to me that’s incredibly powerful and important, vital to the work.
My most recent collaboration for the Thesis Project series with solo artist (and member of Bon Iver) Sean Carey, however, was the first I’ve done in a long time remotely, transferring files via the internet and not working in person. In fact, we started and finished the project without ever having met each other in person. It is Gregory [Euclide]’s concept with Thesis to get two artists together who might not think of working with each other or not having ever met or worked together before. It turns out the work that Sean and I did came out so naturally.
Sean’s a wonderful singer and instrumentalist, much more talented than I am and we come from quite different backgrounds so we both had something really different to bring to the project. Sean’s solo music incorporates vocals and structure and I was more than happy to use this because I don’t often get to, since I can’t sing very well myself. It’s not the first time I’ve worked with vocals. My recent albums with Savvas Ysatis have some vocal tracks and I’m working on an album with my friend Corey Fuller (from Illuha) which has vocals on half the tracks (from Corey). I’ve also worked with vocalists live such as with Ichiko Aoba in Japan and a concert with Corey two years ago with a singer named Ikuko Harada from the band Clammbon.
And lastly, what are you working on right now, and is there anything coming up we should look out for, either your own work or on the label?
Besides this album with Corey that we’re trying to finish up, Marcus and I are almost done with a new album for this label and book project in France called IIKKI. It’s much along the lines of Twine and is coming out well. I’m also finishing a new solo album, one I wanted to do more quickly because Somi took two difficult years to create. This new album I hope will come out at the end of the year, and I do have a label lined up for that (not 12k).
On 12k the next release, in late April is a wonderful LP from Federico Durand, who has become a great friend and colleague (we’re actually planning a collaboration) and at some point in the near future will be a new album from Marcus, which we’re all excited about. The music is done, we just need to do the art.
I think 12k is going to concentrate a bit more on vinyl releases because CDs are, sadly, becoming increasingly difficult to sell. It’s not a choice I want to make, but feel forced to. I still find the CD a great medium, a good compromise between expensive and beautiful vinyl and a soulless download or stream. People are losing the stories and information found in liner notes and artwork with digital consumption and really missing out on the idea that music is a whole lot more than just music.
Thank you, Taylor, for taking the time to speak with me.
[NOTE: This interview was begun in early 2016, however work on my PhD has delayed the interview and eventual publication for much longer than I’d anticipated. The following installment, with Marcus Fischer, should follow very soon after this (it is already completed), and several more installments are already in the works, including a feature on Gregory Euclid’s THESIS PROJECT. So, apologies for the long silence, and I hope to have more columns and more more regularly going forward. Thank you for reading. More at www.SoundPropositions.com.]
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