Ambient Visions Interview – Steve Brand

1st May 2013

AV: When and why did music become an important part of your life?

SB: Ever since I can remember, music has been in my life, Michael. Music of some sort was always playing in the house. As I child, I had toy pianos, drums, banjos, guitars, etc. I had my own record player and I’m told I would stay up late at night listening to records—I drove my family nuts with it. As a teenager, I played in garage bands with my friends, covering rock tunes. Later, in graduate school, music resurfaced again as a passion, this time as backgrounds for my painting and sculpture exhibitions; this was the early 80s, which was a time of great experimentation and innovation for me personally and for the arts in general, but a lot of technology for what I heard in my head wasn’t available, or maybe at least was either not commercially available or very expensive…especially for a college student. So, I would make tape loops out of cassettes, carefully deconstructing cassettes and taping them back together again. I’d record sounds in stairwells into cheap recorders and then use my roommates Teac tape deck to layer them. Even when I was playing in bands and covering other people’s music, I felt compelled to experiment and to try to recreate the ideas and sounds I was hearing in my head (which sometimes didn’t go over well with my bandmates), using bows to play the strings, shoving metal between the strings, detuning, weird tunings, I tried it all. Music for me, has always been a natural outgrowth of expression, creativity and emotion, and an escape from the every day, the mundane, deadening routine. Music is and was for me, a key or doorway into other times, other realms of being.

AV: What are some of the instruments you have learned and what is your preference for composing?

SB: I started with guitar back in my early teens with a very cheap guitar that an uncle bought for me (he was very into Country and Western). That was really the beginning. I loved that thing, but quickly realized that it had limitations. Before long, I had an acoustic 6-string, 12-string, a couple of electrics, a large Fender Super Six amp, etc. Over time, I’ve drifted away from guitar, sold almost everything, and for a period of about 10-15 years, I had no instruments at all to speak of. Still, instruments managed to find their way back into my life; my mother would buy me flutes, ocarinas, penny whistles, etc. when she was away on trips. (One flute was made by Michael Allen Graham of Coyote Oldman, but I didn’t notice this until about 15 years later.) During this time, in addition to my visual work, I also worked in the realm of Experimental Music, under the name, Augur, and my instruments were usually of a found nature, or invented, or created for me by and with friends. My instruments were more or less my imagination and resourcefulness. Then, about 6-7 years ago, some major life changes occurred in my life that caused me to refocus and rethink my life…and my creativity. The flutes that had been appearing in my life became a major source of interest. I started to collect them and it became a sort of compulsion—I had to have them. I probably have more than 30 different kinds now from different cultures and time periods. My wife says that this period of interest and growth for me was really more like remembering than learning.

My approach to composing music (and to most things really), is primarily intuitive. Everything begins with a feeling, intuition or a hunch. The feeling builds. Ideas and inspiration synchronistically begin to collect from all directions around that feeling—poems, stories, titles, instrumentations. Before long, a kind of critical mass occurs, and it turns into enough momentum to create an album. I begin with a sketch of the song: sometimes it’s a literal outline written in my notebook, other times I just capture the basic elements of the song/album in improv sessions…sort of the way a sculpture will chisel large chunks out of a block of stone, or a painter may do a rough sketch before painting. I may do this for several songs, sometimes a whole album. Ideas tend to come in bunches or bundles for me…packages of feeling and ideas. These become the inspiration for everything, and if things go south during the process, I peel everything back to those first inspirations or emotional compass points. I then begin to add to, redirect, build upon those sketches. Sometimes I end up in a very different place. Other times the final thing isn’t much different than the sketch. I’m not afraid to press “delete” or toss entire sections, take things too far, overwork, because I know nothing is ever lost and can be used elsewhere at another time. Also, I tend to work on a number of projects at once—they can have widely different starting points, but can interrelate, overlap and share discoveries and developments.

AV: Did you ever have any formal training in music? How important to a musician is formal training as opposed to “playing by ear”?

SB: I had some guitar lessons early on, with a teacher that I liked very much, but time demands, funds, and probably youthful inattention, drew me away from those. During this time, I learned to read music, but I never felt compelled to stick with it. For me, more formal or structured methods of approaching music were restrictive, confining and honestly, just didn’t make sense to me. To be clear, I’m not dismissing formal training at all, it just didn’t take for me.

AV: Tell me about some of your first compositions and what inspired you to write them.

SB: Some of my first pieces that I felt were a sort of starting point for me began with a 2-track recorder, an electric guitar, an Ebow, a reverb pedal and headphones. There was something about those seemingly more formless and shapeless sounds that I was drawn to. They seemed to express or touch on something more timeless to me…or in me. Reading Carl Jung and Carlos Castenadas back in the 80s really inspired these investigations. (Some of the early tape loops show up at the beginning of my e.p., “Wrapped in Leaves.”) The turning point several years later was one of my albums as Augur—in particular one called, Xibalba. This album created critical mass, to the point where I knew I wanted to create more musical sounds, more emotive compositions, of the kind that weren’t really part of the realm of experimental music which generally tends to be more cerebral and more abstract. Xibalba was sort of my first ambient work, and it encompassed my interest in history, art, archeology, musicology, psychology, folk art, folk music, primitive art, etc. In the early 90s, I started to use a non-linear computer-based film editing software, Avid, which came bundled with ProTools. I immediately connected with this non-linear, non-destructive way of editing and working with music and film. My approach, my outlook is/was nonlinear, so it made sense that my method of working should be non-linear. The software also consolidated into one package many of analogue standalone tools…EQ, compression, etc., and I love that. My Mac is my office, my studio, my store, my window to community and world.

AV: What was it that first attracted you to ambient music as opposed to all the other styles of music that you might have chosen to make as an artist?

SB: I’ve mentioned grad school… During this time, I was immersed in all forms of art, contemporary, historical, fringe, mainstream. I was going to school with musicians who were experimenting with new forms of music, new kinds of music making devices, with film-makers that were using VCR tape loops wrapped around mic stands, sculptors using light and space…this all affected my ideas of what was possible. I had always collected all kinds of music, but this was a time of great acceleration for me. I bought Eno’s “Music for Airports,” and his other collaborations with Fripp, Budd, Hassel and others. At this time, I became aware of the Nonesuch series, which encompassed archaic music from Egypt, Greece, Gregorian Chants, gamalan, Bulgarian fold music, music from the Middle East, etc. The Smithsonian recordings were also influential for me…recordings of the indigenous people of South and Central America, Africa, etc. It all connected and made sense for me. I saw natural bridges and relationships in all these forms of music. I eventually wanted to merge them all into expressions that became my own weird interpretation of these things. Ambient allowed and facilitated this merging for me.

AV: Were there any musicians that you heard starting out that inspired you to create your own unique vision of what your music would eventually become?

SB: I’ve already mentioned my very early influencers, but at that time, I had no real idea or intention of creating ambient music…it was more an ideative springboard for me. I am, by nature, a multi-disciplinary artist, but earlier on, music wasn’t a focus the way it is now. Eventually, there were a handful of artists that moved me to really think about what I wanted to do with music, to focus more on what was personal and endemic to me as a human, artist, creator. One of my teachers in grad school began me on this road. His name was Ben Mahmoud. He taught me that when the work was coming from a very personal, passionate place, all else would fall into place. This idea has always stuck. Later, the music of Stefano Musso/Alio Die, Robert Rich, Lustmord, Jeph Jerman, Zoviet France, Rapoon, vidnaObmana, Steve Roach and others helped me reach way down into my ideas of what was possible. In particular, the work of Alio Die, Dirk Serries and Roach, because they were combining acoustic elements, folks and ancient music, aboriginal music and electronic elements in ways that I identified with. I remember thinking, ‘”Hang on…that’s it…that’s what I want to create, but I have other ideas, other things I’d like to hear that they aren’t creating.” Even so, that was the early 90s and it was another decade before things coalesced to the point where I dropped the moniker of Augur, and began recording ambient under my own name. I finally got tired of being a collector and fan, and wanted to be more of a doer! I felt the force and strength of my ideas finally merited this move and attention. Previous to hearing these artists, I felt that most of the electronic ambient music I was hearing was too fluffy, not weighty enough, not grounded…at least not to my ear or tastes.

AV: Every musician that releases albums to the public had to start at some point learning to record and market their music. Talk about that first album that you decided to release in terms of the music you chose to record, how you went about recording it, and how you issued the music when it was complete.

SB: I finally go the point where just supporting the projects of others wasn’t entirely satisfying to me. (Although I’m still very much a fan and like to support the work of others.) I bought music from several distributors in a big way. I developed relationships with those people and even some of the artists. I knew from my teaching how important a support structure is, and how important it is to reach out to and learn from people who are already doing the things you’re aspiring to do. I was pen pals with Stefano, Jeph Jerman, Jarboe of Swans, Phillip Klinger/PBK, and others. Some encouraged me to release the music I was creating on my home 4-track. My first releases were self-released with Manifold Records, Anomalous, Soleilmoon and others. Eventually, this turned into “pay for copies” releases with a few labels like Alluvial and XZF, which was a very big step for me—to have my work recognized in such a way, to have others invest in my work, was a very big deal.

My first releases in experimental music were cassettes, all hand-assembled, handmade art. I loved this process and got a very good response. These were recorded on 4-track and duplicated at home by me on my stereo. When I moved into ambient music, my first real “Steve Brand,” album was “Awakensong”—my first album entirely recorded on a Mac. By this time, people were approaching me to release music. Andrea Marutti of the Italian label, Afe, reached out to me and my first two ambient albums were released with him. It was a very big step to have someone approach me, offer to foot the expenses, and promote the work…and to have an Italian label do this meant a great deal to me at the time, because it gave me the sense that a bigger world was interested in the music I was creating. Those releases then led to releases with AtmoWorks and Hypnos.

AV: What is it that you learn as a musician from each new album that you compose and record?

SB: Several things… The importance of the creative cycle (artist to audience, audience to artist) and the power of personal connections is always reinforced. Technically, I learn more and more about recording and mastering. That’s why I love to revisit older works and work on multiple projects…I can apply the new things I learn every day. I also always acknowledge power of following one’s impulses and personal inclinations deeper and deeper in increasingly personal ways. Some like to say that there’s “nothing new under the sun.” I don’t agree. If we are looking deeply into ourselves, our interests, our sources of inspiration, we can combine anything into new and very novel and divergent expressions that are uniquely our own.

AV: Obviously it is different for ambient artists to receive airplay and publicity than an equivalent pop star. How important are shows like Hearts of Space, Galactic Travels, Echoes, Stars End or the many fine podcasts on the net in helping your music reach a larger audience?

SB: I can’t speak for other artists, but for me personally, to have my music included on playlists by these people was, and continues to be, a huge validation. To hear Stephen Hill say my name the first time was incredibly surreal, especially after a decade-plus of hearing him call out the names of so many other artists that I respected so much. Overall, I think radio shows (streaming and otherwise) and podcasts are a great way to be grouped with other like-minded artists and method of out-reach to listeners.

AV: Over the years how have you handled the changes in the ways that music is recorded and released to your listeners? As a follow up do you think that we are still moving in a good direction for musicians and performers in the digital age?

SB: As I’ve written, my first releases were cassette, then CDr, then CD and I had no problem embracing download. My day job is as a graphic designer, and working in this field for almost 30 years, I know very well the value of being adaptable and aware of trends. I care very much about my music, and I care even more about delivering it to the people who want to hear it, in the best and easiest way possible. I still value CDs very much. I love holding the “thing” in my hand, but the market is changing, and to deny that would be self-sabotage in my view. As a rule, I never get too ideological or dogmatic about much of anything. For me, these changes have made my processes as a recording artist easier, more transparent, more within my control, so naturally, I embraced them.

My recording set-up has evolved greatly over the years. I started with rack mount effects, a digital studio or cheap mixer and Phillips Cdr recorder, a mic and a pile of objects. Over time, I just got tired of all the pieces and parts, all the gear, and to add to that, our house was built in 1948 so it’s VERY small. When I moved to DAW/computer-based recording, this was the answer to my distaste for boxes and cords and my need to continue to simplify. These days, I have my iMac, my Allen Heath USB mixer, some good mics, my controller/keyboard, a DAW, several flutes, rattles, shakers, bells, gourds, etc.

Yes, I absolutely do think we are pioneering very hopeful directions. I think new possibilities are still in the process of forming, but I think the developments that are taking place now are paving the way for very interesting things. It wasn’t so long ago, that the only way an artist could record was to have or rent a studio. Then, if he jumped that hurdle, the had to solicit or be solicited by a label. Then, if the label agreed, if the work was produced, it may be drastically changed, the artist may have little or no say over the details (art, production, etc.), and they may or may not get paid. Now, the field is more level than ever. The artist can have complete control over their creation from beginning to end. The creation of art and music is available to many more artists—the creation of art has been greatly democratized. I love this idea…creation of art should not be limited to a select few, only those with the right connections or enough money. Yes, there is more, and the audience has more to choose from, but from my perspective, it’s a price worth paying.

AV: Your latest album is called The Great Hoop and was just released in June 2013. What can you tell me about the title and how it describes the music that the listener will find on this release?

SB: The title inspired by this excerpt from the book, “Black Elk Speaks”: “Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” The music is, in part, meant to embody this sense of reverence and expanse of vision. I modified his words a bit to create the title.

AV: Talk about the inspiration for The Great Hoop and what you wanted to achieve with the music that you composed and recorded for this album.

SB: In addition to the above, the music was created as an expression of my own reverence for the land, the nature and the history of this area, and my respect for the traditions and history of the diverse Native American cultures of this region. This journey was begun with my previous album, “Cahokia,” and I felt compelled to continue to explore some of these themes. With both “Cahokia” and “The Great Hoop,” I wanted to be able to subtly meld together the sounds of this region, the feeling that the rolling hills, the gradual changes in topography from prairie, the woodlands, to winding river plains, to foothills, the sparseness of it, along with the suggestions, hints of it’s various pasts, it’s ghosts.

AV: How is it that you integrate field recordings into your music and how do you keep them from becoming overpowering to the composition? Do you go out and record the sounds yourself?

SB: I often think of field recordings as either a bed, or an under-painting that other elements are painted over. Or, I think of them as another instrument. It’s very easy for field recordings to take over a recording. Sounds, field recordings, acoustic sounds, electronic sounds, for me, have to be interwoven, placed in a virtual space, occupy that space in believable ways (ways that we’ve experienced either consciously or unconsciously). For me, using field recordings feel very natural, because I love it when music emerges out of environmental sounds, and even merges with environmental sounds to the point where it can be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins…I like that melding and I hear it all the time in the world around me.

AV: Your music was inspired by the Plains Indians of North America per your notes. When you record music with these kinds of inspirations what is it that you hope to communicate to your listeners about these cultures through your compositions?

SB: No, I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to communicate anything to the listeners about Native American cultures of this area, other than my own respect for them, and my respect for environment and history of this area…which I think is considerable. I have had a fascination with Native American cultures since I was very young—I remain fascinated. I read Archeology Magazine frequently, and it’s obvious that our understanding of some of the first people on this continent was/is severely lacking and is changing as we more or less impartially examine the emerging evidence with new techniques and understanding. Since there is very little written history of these peoples (that isn’t highly subjective), the land is telling us a lot about them, and it seems like we’re finding out that their history and the history of other people’s are more complex and intertwining that we previously knew. All these ideas went into creating this music.

AV: Tell me about what you were feeling as you wrote these compositions and how your visits to the Cahokia Mounds near East St. Louis influenced how these songs were written.

SB: To be clear, my album, Cahokia, was more influenced by the mounds at Cahokia and the Mississippian mound building cultures, and The Great Hoop was more influenced by the diverse region knows as the, Great Plains and the Native American Cultures that lived here (which encompasses many different tribes, cultures, traditions and ages).

I’ve been going to Cahokia since I was very young. There’s something very special about this place to me that I can’t really verbalize. We don’t have many obvious ancient sites in this part of the U.S….that we know of. We do have ancient history here, but it’s usually not obvious or has been integrated back into nature, since most of the ancient cultures of this land didn’t significantly alter the Earth or leave many permanent monuments…that we know of. I love Cahokia for this, and for that fact that it was obviously a sacred area—we really don’t have those here either…not the way Europe has stone rings or cathedrals. In my opinion, Anglo culture in the U.S. doesn’t venerate the environment like that…not in the same way. I wanted to capture a sense of sacred space…internally and externally.

AV: This album was actually started back in 2010. Is this a normal span of time for the composing and recording of new music for you?

SB: Michael, to be honest, I’m not really sure what a normal time span is for the production of an album as far as my own work is concerned! As I’ve mentioned in this interview, I work on a number of things at once, going from one to the other as mood strikes, or as I discover things I want to bring to those works. So the flow is very organic and non-linear. I have a number albums in the stream right now that I’ve been working on for 1-2-3 years and might not be released until 2014 or 2015. During that time, if I feel it necessary, I’ll continue to tweak, fine tune and apply what I’ve learned in the intervening time.

AV: How do you feel about The Great Hoop now that it has been released? Were you happy with what you sent out into the world?

SB: I’m very proud of it. In the initial stages, it all came together very quickly, and I knew at a number of levels what I wanted to achieve in terms of feeling with it, and it’s hit that target for me. On our last visit to the Cahokia Mounds, my wife and I listened to both of these albums, and they were the perfect soundtrack for the place…that gave me a very good feeling.

AV: Who else worked on this album with you helping you to make it everything that you wanted it to be?

SB: Shane Morris provided coyote sounds from around his home in Arkansas for the track, “Hoop of Earth.” Paul Casper/Frore contributed a beautiful section of percussion and texture to “Medicine Bag Ghosts.” I met Shane a few years ago at the Midwest Electromusic Festival and I would say that we connected. In his own music, Shane uses natural and acoustic sounds, along with electrically generated sounds and combines them in fascinating ways. Paul has had several releases of his own, and as I was completing T.G.H., I had the inspiration to ask Paul to help out with that one track. I felt it was strong, but could be stronger with some of Paul finessing and particular twist. I love collaborating with other artists. I feel that collaboration is a way for both artists to grow and go beyond there current level or understanding…if done right. My other collaborators are my wife, Jill, and John Koch-Northrup and Geoff Small: I get a lot of critical feedback along the way from them, which helps me refine and see the trees among the forest.

AV: On this latest project or any other project you have worked on in the past what were some of the major obstacles that you had to overcome to get your music recorded and released?

SB: Honestly, I can’t say I have too many obstacles at this point. I have a great deal of freedom in my life, probably more than ever. If there an obstacle, it’s budget. I would love to be releasing all of my work in digital and as a physical release. To an extent, this was the case until the end of last year, but Relaxed Machinery’s Cdr arrangement changed with Hypnos, and I’ve had to be a bit more flexible in my vision. I guess, restraint could be other obstacles. I have many projects that are ready for release, or in stages of near completion, but I just don’t want to devalue my work by swamping the market with music.

AV: How important is the ambient music community that has grown up on the Internet to those musicians who have chosen to pursue this kind of music?

SB: Community has been very important for me. The Internet had just really started to blossom when I began creating music as Augur, because I was taught early on about the value of a support network as a creative. I was writing letters to other artists and fans, sending tapes and Cdrs through the mail—connecting was happening, but it was slow and making those connections often took some digging. I would say that I felt more isolated at the time. There were no workshops in experimental music or home recording in this part of the U.S. that I knew of. Consequently, I had to find out a lot on my own and experiment to find my own voice and preferences, learn about recording techniques, etc. In retrospect, I’m certain that isolation was beneficial to my development. It wasn’t until I started releasing with AtmoWorks and Hypnos that I really started to see the power of community via AtmoWorks’ .ning community and the Hypnos Forum. I probably felt more of a kinship with the way AtmoWorks community worked, because it seems very open and diverse in it’s membership. It was easy to see that this kind of thing was a great resource for learning about recording, learning about marketing music, for seeing the art of photographers and painters, hearing music of all sorts, reading and writing reviews, reading poetry, etc. Very, very deep—I wish I had had access to this kind of thing 15 years ago?! So, when John wanted to create a community for Relaxed Machinery in 2010, I was thrilled, because I saw it as a reboot of the AtmoWorks community that had only really just begun to gain momentum. John, Geoff, Joel Sutton and Greg/eyes cast down, along with the help of others, have built it into an incredible gathering of creatives of all types, fans, enthusiasts, thinkers, etc. There really is no other site like it that I’m aware of, and it boasts many of the perennial names that founded the ambient genre as members…although I don’t think Eno has ever become a member!

I also want to say, virtual community can be very powerful, but for me, it’ll never replace real face-to-face gatherings with people of like-mind. I think I can risk saying that for some of my pals out there in the ambient world, it’s been important for them as well. Last year (2012), I invited a handful folks that I had become acquainted with from the ambient community to Colorado for an informal get-together. (It was very small because of limited resources, and I really just wanted to test the waters for interest in this kind of thing.) We had a great time and since then, many have asked when it’s happening again. I was moved to do this by numerous comments in emails, blogs and chat about how we should have an “rM round table” or “rM weekend.” I loved the idea and wanted to move it out of the “just talk” stage into reality. I was also inspired by something I noticed at the big nexus events, like SoundQuest in 2010, which was primarily about Steve Roach’s music, along with Byron Metcalf, Mark Seelig and Loren Norell. But, I also noticed that it was also a sort of gathering of the tribes. There were people there from all over the U.S., and from various parts of the world…it was a nexus, an opening, a portal of minds and it felt incredible to be there. People would gather and reacquaint with old friends, or they would meet for the first time, people they had only known by name (or username) or reputation, or by their music, and there was a great sense of camaraderie…I wanted more of that, so I made the first steps to create it in my own small way last year in Colorado. I trust it’ll grow.

AV: What is the side of you as a musician that the public never sees?

SB: Hmmm? Probably that I’m a bit of an introvert or hermit. I love being with family and friends, but I’m more than content with spending hours in the Treehouse (my studio) or backyard listening, creating or thinking about music or metaphysical subjects. I will spend huge blocks of time with my cat nearby, my wife reading in the window seat, a bottle of water (or glass of wine), my mixer, mic and keyboard controller plugged in and recording, layering, improvising hour after hour, or listening to podcasts or reading books about metaphysical subjects. I really can’t get enough of either.

AV: If you hadn’t become a musician what would all of your creative energy had gone toward?

SB: I guess I really haven’t denied myself an avenue of creative expression throughout my life. I’m pursuing or have pursued many of the things I’m interested in. I’m a working designer and in addition to my music, I can explore and utilize my photography and art skills. I guess if there were another field of interest I would have been interested in at one point in my life it would have either been to have been archeology or architecture…although I’m rather math deficient, so I’d be challenged in those fields.

AV: Are there any other thoughts you would like to share with our readers about your music in general and what it has meant to you over the years?

SB: I hope that my music says it for me, to be honest, and I’ve written about some of my ideas in various blogs on rM.ning, so I wonder if writing it here is overkill, but I’ll give it a try. To put it simply, music is medicine. Some musician seem reluctant to call this out and I’m not sure why, because to me, this is a fundamental principal of music. Music is more than a product, an amusement, air vibrating to various frequencies…and that’s all part of why I’m so passionate about music. I create and promote my music, not just because I love it and want to share it (and finance future projects), but also because I feel like music, music made with a particular intent and purpose, is needed in this world at this time. What I feel some of are doing with ambient music is akin to how music was created and used thousands of years ago. Not just as background, or to impart a particular story or message, but to create the possibility for a different kind of life, a different way of approaching life, living it, of literally altering consciousness and opening new worlds of perception—in a way we have forgotten about and are just now remembering. Music can reconnect us with ourselves, our surroundings, each other, the Earth, our collective and individual pasts, our potential futures, larger consciousness, opening our minds to other ways of seeing and experiencing all these things. It’s a hugely important task in this time of great change and possibility and I want my music to be a part of that movement from the old paradigms to the new.

AV: Thanks for such an in depth look at your music Steve. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions with such thoughtful responses. I’m sure those who enjoy your music will enjoy this opportunity to get to know you as a person a little bit better.

Source – http://www.ambientvisions.com/stevebrand.htm