Mercury by DAC Crowell/Kurt Doles
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The Sea and the Sky
AV: Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and how you got started creating the style of music that you do now?
DC: Well, I live out in rural Illinois, in a very small town, along with my companion of 15 years and my tech assistant. We have a century-old house here, of which the top floor is the almost-completed Aerodyne Works studio, which is where Kurt Doles and I cut “Mercury” for Suilven Recordings and also where I finished up “The Sea and the Sky” for Magnatune. The studio is sort of the culmination of building up a massive pile of equipment and such, which started about 25 years ago in Nashville, which is where I’m originally from. I started learning music around age 3, kept at it over the years, then started working in the compositional side of things in the late 1970s. Originally, I was involved more in what would become known as ‘industrial’ music, but I was listening to some of the earliest ambient stuff by Brian Eno, plus a lot of music coming out of the Köln and Berlin scenes in Germany, so in amongst what I was doing in a noisier vein, I suppose a lot of influences crept in from these. And Karlheinz Stockhausen’s work, of course...which was influential in pretty much any direction, both from a sonic and philosophical standpoint. I did my first experiments in what would be considered ‘ambient’ music as part of Nashville’s early punk scene, interestingly, doing ambient sets, tape assemblages, and live mixing for a band called USR, around 1980. Then in years following this, I drifted more toward an ambient sonic direction, but I’ve never really stepped totally away from my roots in New Music; over time, I did compositional studies with John Anthony Lennon, Salvatore Martirano, and the big kahuna himself, Stockhausen, so I don’t think you can say I’ve ever exactly ‘left’ the avant-garde...just tampered with it sonically quite a bit.
AV: Your latest CD Mercury was released not too long ago. What was the seed of inspiration for this CD and how did you go about beginning to do the work on it?
DC: ”Mercury” started in collaborative sessions
between Kurt Doles and myself back in Champaign in 1998...
“The Sea and the Sky”, though...that’s another thing altogether. The opener (”Tidal Motion”) was cut back in 1995, and sort of borrows ideas from Chinese music (the slowed cymbal sounds, especially) and techno at the same time, slowing the rhythmic technoid ideas down. It started as an experiment, but while tinkering with the sounds I started to pick up on this ‘wave-like’ feel that the sequencers were creating, and took off from there. But the centerpiece of that release is definitely “Umi no Kami ni Kansha”, which required about a year of retake attempts before I’d gotten a version that sounded right for release. Interestingly, it’s a piece that’s composed for live performance...but noise problems and such kept forcing me to redo it until I’d gotten a ‘clean’take. And that work, also, is really a ‘performance version’ for another, much longer work I’m hoping Daniel will be releasing on Suilven in the future, “Harmonies of Fire, Ice and Lightning”. That one’s just too complex to discuss here...it’s not a ‘short answer’-type piece. I could easily write for pages upon pages about it...and probably will have to, eventually.
AV: Was there anyone else besides yourself who worked with you on this new CD? What kinds of contributions did these other participants make to the overall CD? If you worked on it alone do you ever seek outside advice on what you are working on before it is completed?
DC: In both cases, I really have to credit my long-suffering technical assistant, Simon Shak, who’s done some extremely helpful things for me and the studio over the years...and also, my companion Paul Defenbaugh and personal business manager Dr. Les Savage (yep...Doc Savage), who’ve helped immensely in getting the studio out here built in addition to...well, just plain dealing with me and some of my various creative and/or destructive impulses. And of course, with “Mercury”, there’s Kurt’s invaluable collaboration there...we’re already tossing ideas around for the next thing, in fact.
But as for the ‘outside advice’ point...interestingly, I really have to give a nod to Holger Czukay. I made his acquaintance via the Internet some years back, and he graciously listened to what I was doing and then proceeded to rip it to shreds...constructively, of course. Lots of things to consider and reconsider after that, and also I would have to say Holger’s advice was sort of what pushed me toward going to Kürten in 2001 and 2002 for seminars and classwork with Stockhausen. In the case of both of these releases, that experience made some significant differences. In the case of the 2004 “Mercury” sessions, I’d have to say it sharpened me up on listening and reacting to things in the sessions with Kurt and honed the collaboration process, and for “Umi no Kami...” and the larger work it comes out of, the Stockhausen experience was a dynamic force behind the compositional methods there. Thanks, Holger!
AV: Did beginning work on this new project bring to mind echoes of your previous releases and how did this new CD build on what came before without becoming derivative of past compositions?
DC: Well, pretty much _anything_ I do has some sort of ‘derivation’ from prior works; I don’t think you can say that anything someone does exists in its own little vacuum. There’s going to be a line of development of some sort there, consciously or not.
But in “Mercury”’s case, Kurt and I were definitely looking at a progression outwards from the 1998 tracks...although not necessarily a linear one. More of a ‘fan-shaped’ one...ideas going off in related but divergent directions. And there’s also points that relate back to our first release; again, there’s that ‘line of development’ issue in play.
“The Sea and the Sky”, oddly, was put together more accidentally. I put these two pieces...or rather, “Tidal Motion” and an earlier live version (with a few technical problems, hence it wasn’t released) of “Umi no Kami...”...together on a demo CD I sent to John Buckman at Magnatune back in 2003, and he was hot to release the demo as it existed, right there. But no...there were some glitches in that 50+ minute opus to deal with first...
AV: If someone was curious about your newest release how would you describe the music to them? ( please feel free to go into as much detail as needed on this point as a primary goal of these spotlights is to allow the listener to learn about an artists new release as much as possible without actually listening to the CD)
DC: I wouldn’t. Really, I prefer to have the listener decide what my work does for them themselves rather than set up a lot of preconceived notions which they then have to ‘listen through’. Rather, I would rather they know that what I’m doing with my work fits into a certain general area of music, and then turn them loose to explore what I’ve come up with on their own. I even have a few issues in terming what I do as ‘ambient’, since even that term bears some predicatory ideas; I would certainly _never_ call what I do “newage” for those same reasons!
However, since the idea here is to give _some_ sort of guidance about what’s on these releases...I would have to say that the listener would be best prepared to hear what’s on either in a receptive, active sort of listening mode. Neither album really fits the ‘background audio’ definition of ambient music very well. “Mercury” has a lot of bits to it where you can clearly pick up on the Krautrock-type influences both Kurt and I have, while “The Sea and the Sky” starts off with a rhythmic direction but then turns extremely contemplative afterwards. They’re both more in the ‘evocative’ ambient ballpark...they call up certain sonic images, ideas, impressions of certain places, times, states of mind, so when listening I would have to say it would be better if the listener lets the album grab hold of them, rather than the other way around. Don’t do a lot of your own thinking while listening.
AV: Tell me about what you found satisfying about creating the music of this new CD and is this feeling the same for all the music that you create or does each one generate its own emotional response within you?
DC: “Mercury” is, of course, a collaboration with someone I’ve worked with for about a decade now, so creating it wasn’t simply an act of going into the studio and laying down some tracks. There’s a lot of what went along with that collaborative creative process in there. So along with the sessions, we had a lot of dining, driving about to various local joints and hangouts from Kurt’s days at the University of Illinois, drinking and smoking cigars, watching some wonderfully horrendous TV, and so on. The experience, I think, sneaks into the tracks and there’s a little of that in there...it’s what makes that album a bit ‘more’ than just simple music.
“The Sea and the Sky”...hmm...that’s somewhat different. “Tidal Motion” was more the ‘spirit of adventure’ of the studio’s early days in the bad part of Champaign in the mid-90s, something originating in a process of technical discovery. But “Umi no Kami ni Kansha” was more something of an ‘inner discovery’, along with its originating work “Harmonies of Fire, Ice, and Lightning”. It’s a work that’s less a thing of technique, and more of the spirit. Which is sort of amusing given that it was the thing that delayed the album due to technical issues with it; the spirit may be able to overcome much, but as for overcoming 60 Hz buzzes, clicks, and so on...nope!
AV: What will those who have heard your music before recognize as “you” about your latest CD and what will they find on it that breaks new ground compared to your previous music?
DC: Daniel at Suilven has referred to my music as having a certain ‘shimmer’ to it...which I suppose goes toward the point that much of my work comes out of a certain ‘atmosphere’. When I work, I’m always listening for that point at which things seem to be heading toward a certain result, a certain sort of sound that derives from...well, I don’t know what, really. But I’ve been told there’s always that certain atmospheric feel to whatever I’ve done that’s present. I can’t really put MY finger on it, I suppose, because getting to that ‘feel’ is more instinctual for me and so I can’t really figure out that ‘feel’ on a logical level. But I suppose I keep hitting it.
As for ‘new ground’ though...”Mercury” definitely manages that. Whereas Kurt and I did something more contemplative and ‘pure ambient’ last time out, this time we’re doing music that more ‘takes the listener somewhere’. It’s not passive work at all, but more dynamic. And the different directions on this album mean you get taken a lot of different places, which we certainly intended. But the big ‘new ground’ comes on “Umi no Kami...” and its ‘parent work’, “Harmonies of Fire, Ice, and Lightning”, the latter of which won’t be completed for some time. On that work, the compositional process comes out of Stockhausen’s concepts of working with a ‘formula’...in this case, a single sample, six notes long, from which the entire 3+ hours of “Harmonies” (and of course, the 50+ minutes of “Umi no Kami”) ‘unfold’. The initial thematic ‘row’ there becomes the primary structural ‘seed’ for the entire work, in terms of pitches, harmonic densities, durations, and so on. Technically, this is ‘serial music’, but it’s not atonal, since the ‘row’ is modal and not twelve equally-weighted pitches. But unlike older ideas of serialism, this uses the idea of deriving structure out of a singular ‘point’. In a way, it’s like an organic process...growing a complex plant from a simple seed. You can hear the process go on in this shorter ‘performance version’, but where it’ll really come into its own is in the final full work itself. I’m hoping I can have it done in 2006, but there’s a lot of field recordings and such that I need to do for it, so it might take somewhat longer to get those collected and then get the whole thing assembled and realized.
AV: What kinds of musical influences might your audience find in your music as they listen to your latest CD? Are you aware of these influences while you were creating this CD or do they just seep in on their own?
DC: Hoo, boy...influences? With Kurt and I, we come bearing loads of them, so there’s no telling what you’ll hear. We listen to just about ANYthing, and it comes out in sneaky ways when we record. Kurt’s studied in Bali, and also with Lou Harrison, and then there’s my background...and then all the STUFF we’ve heard over the years might be a point of reference at any given point. Like I noted, there’s a Kraut-ish tone to “Mercury”, but it’s not wholly that, either...you can even discern some ‘lo-fi’ ideas in there; Kurt and I certainly have listened to a goodly amount of music that people are starting to refer to as ‘post-rock’ such as Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Labradford, and the like as well, and some people have tried to intimate that we belong in that same zone. I steadfastly hold to the idea that I won’t say what we’re doing, though, myself.
It’s also worth noting that Kurt and I both ‘turned’ on academia. Both of us halted our work during our Doctoral studies in composition for similar reasons, namely the fact that academia’s present idea of ‘New Music’ is too restrictive for what we feel it should be; this is something we’re continuously aware of when we create. We want to invite people to listen; we don’t want to be sonic stand-offs. We create music for audiences, not grant-making bodies. Milton Babbitt’s stuff may have been that shiznit for its day, but who in the hell needs a thousand clones of him standing up at the head of college classrooms, creating more Babbitt-alikes? Especially forty-plus years out of place? I was once asked, during my last semester of studies, what my influences were...and when I mentioned the likes of Klaus Schulze and Brian Eno, I was curtly told “we don’t deal with _such things_ around here”. I quit about six or seven weeks after that. Kurt’s had similar experiences, and that led him to the point of halting his degree work as well. What’s the point in creating music only for people who pretend that a little, academically-sanctified slice of the musical continuum is ‘valid’?
AV: When did you know that this project was done and that tweaking the mix would not make it any better? Are you pretty objective about knowing when you can’t make a piece of music any better than it already is and calling it done?
DC: It’s one of those ‘you just _know_’ things. Intuition.
The story behind “Red State Transmission” is a good example of
this: when we were cutting it, we’d gotten all the synth layers
finished, but Kurt and I were still listening to the playback and
going ‘nuh-uh’. So we started screwing around with a shortwave radio
(I have two in the studio) and ramming that through processors.
After a few false takes in which we got results that just didn’t
seem ‘right’, we tuned the radio (by accident) into this rightwing-type
evangelical station, started rolling the background tracks, and
then we heard...with the very creepy, muffly echo you hear on the
track...’let us pray’. When we got THAT sort of intuitive, accidental
juxtaposition, when it was like the beginning of the piece had simply
completed itself, THEN we knew we’d gotten the take we wanted. And
sure enough, as we layered that shortwave sound in, it played out
perfectly. Up to that point, the piece had no title...but after
we’d hit that sonic ‘jackpot’, we felt it had a very disturbing
sound to it, dark, very ‘someplace not where
AV: With the release of this new CD do you still get butterflies in your stomach when its finally time to share it with the public?
DC: Nah. I’m more worried in the mastering process, really...I get very jittery about trying to get that final sound JUST right, getting the track order and spacing JUST right, and so on. That’s where it’s more of a butterfly moment...trying to concoct ‘the perfect ticket’ for the listener, and putting myself in their own shoes while working. You always have that instant of doubt...”did I get THAT band of EQ set right? Is THAT the right compression ratio/level there?”...that sort of thing, just as you hit the final ‘save’. Maddening. And inevitable.
AV: What kind of feedback have you been getting since releasing this new CD and does this feedback (reviews, e-mails etc) ever affect how you might approach your next project?
DC: The Suilven stuff is what seems to get the big chunk of reviews...oddly, while the Magnatune stuff has ‘moved’ more, Daniel’s strategy with his label seems to get my work there more critical attention. As for how the reviews ‘affect’ things...it’s more in the ‘sigh of relief’ department where what I’m talking about in the previous question is concerned. Not so much in that I’m always up for boffo reviews of my work, but inasmuch as I can say that the music there was able to have SOME sort of impact, and then I know I’ve done my work. Even if someone says some element was wrong, or whatever, I know there’s a connection there to the music because if there wasn’t, they couldn’t make that statement.
As for how criticism actually might change HOW I do something, though...all I have to do is to recall how much critics said the early albums by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath sucked...and at the same time, recall how much impact those ‘sucky’ albums had. About the only time critique has been a changing force has been when it’s been on the same creative level, such as Holger Czukay’s input back in 2000, or the collaborative back-and-forth in the “Mercury” sessions.
That sort of thing, where it’s actually PART of the process, and not something coming in from outside of it.
AV: Being intimately familiar with this work what would you like for your listeners take away from this CD after they have played it a few times? Or upon repeated listenings over a period of years?
DC: I would like it very much, at some point years in the future when listeners might have forgotten these releases, if they have a certain moment at some point in their day where something hits them the right way and they ‘snap back’to that music they thought they’d forgotten. It could be anything...a trick of the light in the sky, a certain phrase, or whatever. If this music is what ‘floats back up’, then I’m pleased, and it tells me I’ve done my job right.
Or if these releases become music that is an integral part of a certain life moment...inseparable, always something that should be there for a certain time, place, or action. That, also, would be what I’d hope for. I don’t aim for music that’s just ‘background’, like some noise on the radio in the office, but a music that snaps a certain ‘shutter’...BANG!, that moment THERE.
In either case, I’m trying to create experiences for the listener that are ‘of a moment’. That’s what I hope for. And not necessarily so much that the music is the only part of that moment, but the whole experience of the listener right then. Something that you return to when you put the piece on again, like a piece of photographic film with an image etched by light on it.
AV: When will this release be available and how can AV’s readers get a copy of their own?
DC: ”Mercury” is supposed to be out in the first part of February, and you can get it via Suilven’s website directly, or through various distributors. Check their website (http://www.suilvenrecordings.com) for all the essentials.
“The Sea and the Sky” is available directly from Magnatune...literally. The bulk of their sales are for the growing crowd of downloadable media users, although they’ll cook you a CD if you just have to have a physical product. They’re at http://www.magnatune.com and the album should be out, coincidentally (or not? it was those technical issues with “Umi no Kami...” after all that sort of determined when it was coming out...very weird) around the same time as “Mercury”.
AV: In most interview sessions there is always something that an artist really wanted to tell their audience about their latest release but the interviewer never asked. Is there anything else about this CD that stood out in your mind and that you would like to share with the readers of Ambient Visions before we close this interview out?
DC: I would really like to say something in closing about the two labels I’m on. I’m grateful to both Daniel Patrick Quinn and John Buckman...not merely for putting my work out, but for taking the not-inconsequential risks of running truly independent operations such as Suilven and Magnatune. These people and their efforts really deserve your attention and support. What they’re trying to do is very literally against the odds. Daniel runs what you’d call a ‘classic’ micro-indie operation, but the fact that he’s got such firm artistic convictions that inform Suilven’s direction is courageous as hell, as it adds a second dimension of risk due to his uncompromising musical vision. And John’s model of how to do business...the entire ‘pay as you like’ system, the ability to ‘test-drive’ new music, and so forth is incredibly bold and very forward-thinking...and henceforth, also pretty risky.
These people are real mavericks. And I also think/hope/pray that they’re the future, because without people like them, music outside the corporate aesthetic model has little hope. I can’t begin to say what an honor it’s been to work WITH them...not FOR them, as I might have had to do with some other operations. I’ve been there, done that, and it ain’t fun. Buy their stuff. You want these people and their ideas to win.
AV: Thanks much for talking to me about your latest releases and I do wish you a lot of success with both of them.