Relaxed Machinery:
AV Talks With John Koch-Northrup

©2010 Ambient Visions


John Koch-Northrup
and Tippi

To visit Relaxed Machinery's
click here.



Circular Scriptures
by Steve Brand











AV:  You've had quite a long history with music going all the way back to the age of 5. Tell me about your discovery of synths and electronics in relationship to your music and how you began to explore it.  

JKN:  My grandma started teaching me piano when I was five.  Although I don't really remember that far back really well, I'm assuming it was seeing her play the organ at their house that got me interested, and probably music just being "in me".  She played organ for 65 years at the same church in the small town I grew up in.  What an amazing thing.  I have many great memories of her playing.  Once she felt she'd taught me as much as she could she pushed me to another teacher - and it kind of went on like that over the years until I completely stopped taking piano lessons when I was 19.

I think I was 13 or 14 when I really got fired up about synths and electronics.  The music on the radio catching my ear was coming from Howard Jones "Human's Lib" and then Depeche Mode when "Some Great Reward" came out.  That's when I stopped borrowing my older sister's AC/DC and Ozzy cassettes and started buying a lot of records and cassettes ranging from synthpop to industrial to jazz.     

When I was 15 my grandma and grandpa loaned me the money to buy my first synth - a Siel DK-600 which was an Italian digital analog hybrid... tons of knobs.  Through a weird coincidence of my parents selling our car to a drummer - I joined my first band which did all covers.  Everyone in the band was at least a decade older than me.  I played a ton of gigs with them and with the money I made from that and my job at a music instrument store I was able to pay back the loan and start buying other gear.  I had great parents that allowed me to keep gigging (even on weeknights!) as long as I kept my grades up, which I did. 

Friends all had different bits of gear - so we'd meet and all experiment with each others synths and effects and drum machines.  The holy grail was to go and rent a huge Clarion 4-track cassette recorder and a Korg Super Drums from a local music store and then spend the weekend recording.  My music then was very early Depeche Mode sounding, heavily melodic with lots of counter melodies underneath.  And then I'd go play pop, rock and the occasional Rush tune with my cover band.  

AV:  What was it about ambient or instrumental music that caught your attention and held your interest to the point that you wanted to create it for yourself?  

JKN:  This is where I need to back up a bit... even when I was really, really young playing piano, I loved the sound of it.  As my parents liked to say I would beat on the piano and just make "noise".  I'm sure it started out sounding like any other 5 or 6 year old beating on a piano (we've all heard that a few times in our lives...) - but at some point I started pounding out basic rhythms and block chords.  I eventually became 'good' at it and my noise started to be more like songs - not necessarily melodic songs (probably would have made my parents happier if they were
melodic!), more subtle, complex rhythms, thick not quite atonal block chords.  Thick bass end and very rhythmic drones always have been a part of me  years and years later I stretched out and went very minimal and sparse. 

In high school - I was a major band geek - and played trumpet in concert and jazz band. Went to state, 1st chair pretty much throughout grade and high school, and the student band director my senior year.  Every year in Illinois we have a state solo and ensemble contest and for three years I wrote my piano solos.  I'd hand the judges my pencil written score and then play the song.  Students from other schools would come to see me play because I'd written my songs.  I was kind of known as that guy that writes his own piano songs ;-)    

Even from a very early age up to high school - I was doing music that could best be described as instrumental, soundtrack, background music.  I was creating ambient music, but just didn't know it.  I think David Sylvian's "Brilliant Trees" was the first time I recognized music similar to mine that wasn't in a film soundtrack.  Humorously, I didn't truly discover Brian Eno until many years later.  I also heard myself in the background of a lot of industrial dance music. 

AV:  From your bio I gather that you have played several genres of music over the years. What is it about electronic music that you feel allows you to communicate your ideas and feelings better than if you were trying to use some other styles of music that you have played through the years?  

JKN:  This is a great question.  Electronics have always integrated into my playing when we're not talking strictly about me playing piano.  There's something about that magic of knobs and sliders, wheels and joysticks, blinking lights, effects racks and guitar pedals... finding a sound and sculpting it.  There's a connection there similar to how I feel so connected to playing a piano or bass or trumpet.  These instruments all feel very "right" in my hands as if they're a part of me.  It's really hard to describe, but think of whatever it is you truly and passionately love to do... whether it's holding a paintbrush, or a screwdriver, or writing, or a camera, or cooking, etc...  there's something in your life that just "feels right".   For me it's always been playing music  almost doesn't matter what instrument I'm playing.   

I think if we're broadly taking electronics to mean recording - and using different tools to modify sound - then the reason it works so well for me is I can play everything on a recording.  I can realize the music inside me and put it in a format others can hear.    

AV:  What was it that motivated you to take the step from simply playing music to trying to make a career of it?  

JKN:  There's a key thing to know... I purposely didn't make music my career for a lot of reasons.  When I was about 19 I think I made that very important switch from "I could make it as a musician" to "I'd rather do something else with my life, have security and a paycheck and health insurance".  I've had asthma all my life and health insurance was key to me early on.  I also didn't really want to live in the back of a van.     

I made music my "very passionate hobby" and I've never regretted that decision.  I don't think there are truly that many people in ambient music that make a living off of their music - everyone has a "day job" of one type or another.  I'm very lucky that at least 90% of the time - I truly enjoy the work I do.   I'm in IT and my career has mainly centered around "data/information" for the last 17 years or so.  Lots of databases, SQL, programming, making data useful in reports and OLAP cubes, and lately a ton of EDI. 

Doing music is a labor of love.  Because I don't have to rely on it for a paycheck - I can focus on the parts of music I'm passionate about. 

AV:  Tell me about your Interstitial releases and how your music was taking shape during that time period?  
JKN:  When my last band broke up in 1998 I decided to make my solo music the priority and not just look for another band to play in.  My decision to stop playing in bands came from a variety of reasons including hauling gear, asthma, late nights, etc...  This was also when I switched from recording on 4-track cassette to using a computer although I still basically use a computer as a cassette recorder.   I've always been about directly connecting with instruments and the effects, and I almost always record live.   

Interstitial was my artist name for a long time and means "the space between".   I felt my music somewhat sat in between several types of music that all mostly can fall into the term "ambient".  My first released solo album, "Temporal Arc", goes from slow groove techno with soundscapes to microsound almost programmed minimalism, to beatless drone to hints of minimal techno immersed in drones and washes. 

On my website in the early 2000s I had a statement about my music and the name: 

i n t e r s t i t i a l - t h e    s p a c e    b e t w e e n 

     between art and technology
             ambient and pulse
           atmospheric and glitch
                 piano and noise
            jazz and Detroit 

This really fit what I was thinking at the time. 

I also got the opportunity to play live with old friends a couple times.  Once in Milwaukee in 2001 with Vir Unis where I played bass, synth, and trumpet.  Later in 2003, a 4 hour live improvisational set on WNUR Evanston/Chicago with Vir Unis and James Johnson which I'm very proud of.  I went in 100% cold into that 4 hour session - and it was darn fun!  I just took my bass and effects and mixer for feedback - and either played relatively straight bass lines or added to the soundscapes with various sounds I can coax from the bass and effects. 

Unfortunately - not too long after that we had a family medical issue and we spent most of a year watching, waiting, helping as we could as my wife Heidis dad passed away.  After that I didn't feel like recording and if we fast forward 6 years - here we are today.   Interestingly, when my mom passed away in 1992 from her relapse into cancer, I put away my instruments for 4 years then.   I never stop playing piano.   I think playing piano is always my outlet, very few people ever actually hear me play though.  Maybe that will change going forward, well see. 

AV:  Relaxed Machinery was not your first go round as at least a co-owner of a record label. Tell me about the time you spent at Atmoworks and what did you enjoy the most about the work that you did there.  

JKN:  Earlier I helped with a few websites - some various pages, Green House Music, and later helping with The Foundry's e-commerce store.  When James Johnson decided to step back from AtmoWorks, John (Vir Unis) asked me and another old high school friend, Matt, to join as co-owners.  What I truly enjoyed most in my 18 months or so at AtmoWorks was the artists and the music, the connections made.   I made a lot of friends there with artists and listeners.    

AV:  What is there that you can do now or what satisfaction do you get by running your own label that you wouldn't get when you were co-owner of AtmoWorks?  

JKN:  Relaxed Machinery is a much more relaxed label in so many ways.   I'm working with people I truly enjoy to talk to and work with, there's no pressure on anyone to release albums every week.  Its much more fun for me and everyone involved.  Its a great group of artists.  

One special thing with Relaxed Machinery is the release package.  So many people buy albums through iTunes, Amazon, etc... and there's just this little thumbnail image.  I really want all Relaxed Machinery releases to have artwork people can download, and photos or wallpaper that go along with the album as well as liner notes.   The blog on provides an outlet for this.   Admittedly, I'm not fully there yet and we're all figuring it out, but each release will be "special" and have more than just the music.   I want to bring back that early feeling I had with vinyl.   Times have changed, but that's the feeling I want to give with Relaxed Machinery.  We're just using newer media.   

Another thing is the promotion.  Relaxed Machinery is purposefully smaller with less artists.   This gives more time to ensure that the album is right, the mastering is right, the artwork is perfect, and the extras can be created and I can plan for promotion. 

I also wanted to do something very open.  I turned on the blog well before the label went live.  I thought it might be interesting for people to see the birth of the label and the ideas.   Some ideas work, some don't.   That's ok.   Everything evolves over time (just like a good ambient track...) 

AV:  First off what is it that you want to communicate about your music via the name that you chose for this new label venture?  

JKN:  Relaxed Machinery came to me years ago when I was working a lot of weekends alone in the electronics factory I do IT work for.  I was busy doing migrations and upgrades to our main systems.   The factory has tons of electronic machines in it. They put components on circuit boards, huge machines that solder, and ovens.  Even though no one is there and the lights are off, the factory is very "alive" even on a Sunday morning.   All the machines make clicking noises, pressure gets released, beeping - the machines are relaxed but not silent.  So I brought my minidisc in and let it record out there until the disc was full and planned to release an e.p. called Relaxed Machinery.   

I never did the e.p. - but the name stuck.  I registered the domain back in 2002 or so.  The name just seems to fit the label and the ideas for it so well!  The label is focusing on ambient and minimal techno music with the tagline organic .: ambient :. techno.  The organic speaks to how all of us as artists write  the techniques we use, the tools we use, the processes  its all a very organic, natural, from the heart type of music.    

AV:  Given the economic times in which we live what motivated you to start up Relaxed Machinery at this particular moment in time?  

JKN:  The current state of technology and the Internet and the way listeners have moved in mass to portable mp3 players makes this label possible right now.  This is a very low-cost label from a dollar point of view, definitely not low-cost from a time and effort viewpoint.  I cover webhosting costs, but that's pretty much the only overhead.  Since I'm not making a personal profit off of the other artist's releases, the artists sign up for CD Baby and upload their album which costs about $55.00 to do.   If they sell 8 or 10 copies, even at a very affordable download price, they break even.  Everything beyond that is profit for them.   With my arrangement with the Hypnos Store (definitely well known for their Hypnos ambient releases!), it's a similar thing.  We provide Hypnos with the audio and artwork and they make the Relaxed Machinery cdrs and sell them.  Hypnos keeps a flat fee from each sale and gives the rest to the artist. 

Because it's so easy to release through places like CD Baby, Tunecore, Reverb Nation and so many others... literally *everyone* can release their music.  And that is happening.   So the idea of the label is to help us as artists get noticed above that huge influx of new artists added to sites like iTunes every single day. 

We've also created a community within the label to help each other  and a larger community partnering with other labels and sites which Ill discuss later in the interview. 

AV:  Tell me about how Relaxed Machinery is different from a normal label and what makes this important to the listener and to the artists who record for you?  

JKN:  A big difference is the focus on the artists.   I'm not keeping any money from sales of artists albums at all.   They pay for their own release through CD Baby, and they keep all of their sales.   Since I'm also an artist, Ill have my own sales.  If the label as a whole is successful, everyone on Relaxed Machinery benefits.   

Does this really matter to the listeners?  No, probably not and it really shouldn't.  The listeners care about the music and the creativity that goes into it and the artwork.  I hope that by keeping it small, working with people I truly enjoy working with and enjoy their company, taking plenty of time to make sure the albums are right before release, and providing tons of "extras" for the albums will make the difference to a casual listener and turn them into a fan of Relaxed Machinery artists and the label.   

For the artists - to me it's a partnership.  They don't record for me, but for themselves and I help where I can.  I do act as a "gatekeeper" - if something doesn't seem right in a track with the mix or mastering, or if one track really doesn't fit the album - the artist and I will talk about it.  Maybe it's really supposed to be that way and they'll convince me of that - or maybe they weren't quite sure on it and just needed a peer to say 'hey, maybe that's not quite right'.   This process ensures that we're all doing our best which makes the music that much better for the listeners. 

I foresee the label becoming more of a peer group. Everyone has good ears and can suggest creative ideas or comments on a new track. Steve Brand has an obvious strength in graphic design as he does this for a living. I have strengths in finding ways to make things work and connecting people. Rob Vaughn at the Sound-O-Mat has decided to join Relaxed Machinery and do mastering work on some of the albums.  I couldn't have asked for better friends and support for the label! 

AV:  What kind of relationship are you looking to create between yourself and the artists who put out their music on Relaxed Machinery?  

JKN:  Mutual respect for each other and our music.  This is more about friends helping each other release music than about anything else.  Expanding on the last question, I trust them to critique my music and they trust me to do the same.  They're trusting me to create a label and a presence that will slowly grow and become respected - and I trust them to create the music that will make that happen.    

AV:  Tell me about the first few releases that are coming out on Relaxed Machinery and what kind of message that these releases send out to listeners of Relaxed Machinery in regards to the quality of music that will be released on your label.  

JKN:  Steve Brand - Circular Scriptures was the first release in January.  Steve's been around for a very long time under his name with solo and collaborative releases on AtmoWorks and Hypnos Secret Sounds, and under the name Augur since the early 90's.  His music is phenomenal and I am really happy he wanted to be a part of Relaxed Machinery.  He's also a huge influence on the look and feel of the label.  He's taken my thoughts about how things should look and made them happen - and in most cases, came back with designs that are so much more than I thought about.    

Chris Russell has released two albums on AtmoWorks prior to his upcoming Frozen album.  He's great. I know people will enjoy his work ranging from soft and subtle synth to more challenging experimental tracks.  Frozen sounds like its title.  He wrote it as an interpretation of the winter solstice with the hope for the coming spring.  Interestingly, I remember telling Chris when I first heard it that it sounds like winter with little touches of spring emerging before I knew that's what he intended.  This should be coming out in May. 

Bob Ohrum will be releasing Elevated probably in June.  He's just a gem of a person and his music stunned me in such a good way the first time I heard it.  It's written in honor of his father who passed away two years ago.  Bass, field recording, synths  he and I have a similar approach to music even though we don't sound the same.  The artwork features a photo of a valley where his father grew up and that's where his ashes are scattered.  The first track was written the day they scattered the ashes.  You can truly hear the emotional power in that track.   Mastering is being done by Rob at 

Beta Cloud / Carl Pace.   Carl is the "new guy" and I haven't known him long, but I feel like I know him well in only this short amount of time.  He sent me a copy of his recently released "Lunar Monograph" - which I highly, highly recommend.  That sealed it for me - I wanted to release new music from him.   Guitar, field recordings, piano, he's a great composer and player.   His first album for Relaxed Machinery will be a benefit album for cancer research  all of his profits will go to a fund that he supports every year.  Its called The Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho). Mastering was done by James Plotkin and artwork is in process. 

AV:  As a new label what are some of the challenges you face in establishing RM as a viable entity in the ambient community?  

JKN:  I'd like to create a label that people know will release great music packaged with care.  It takes time and effort to grow a fanbase which I truly hope to do.  

The challenges are many - there are so many artists and labels out there, so many ways to release music.  There are no longer huge roadblocks to getting an album released as there were just a few short years ago.   Getting noticed, building a reputation, and keeping customers happy.  That's how it happens.  It's slow, organic growth. 

AV:  Are you going to put out a physical product as well as offering digital downloads? What are the advantages or disadvantages of using either of these formats for your releases? Tell me about your relationship with Hypnos in this regards?  

JKN:  I'm a long time fan of vinyl and cd's.  It's that physical process of looking through the spines and browsing.  Looking at the artwork, reading liner notes.   The whole package is important to me.   However, technology has begun to move on and so have fans and listeners.  Even I have - I tend to play my ipod more than anything these days.  It's a lot more convenient to download an album to the ipod and bring it to work and put it on my speaker dock.   I used to keep hundreds of cd's at my desk at work. 

But! I still like physical releases and that's where Hypnos is such a key in Relaxed Machinery.  It's a perfect blend of getting the music out there through CD Baby for digital downloads which distributes to iTunes, eMusic, Amazon etc... and Hypnos where there's a core and loyal following of "dedicated ambient" fans who want the uncompressed full music on cdr.    

Truth be told, I still want to release a vinyl 12" someday just because I've always wanted to! 

AV:  Taking a broader look at your label, what is it that you think Relaxed Machinery brings to the ambient community at large and why is it that you feel this is something that you need to do?  

JKN:  Doing the label is kind of like my need to play music.  The label allows me to connect with artists and listeners, people... I enjoy those connections, I enjoy talking about music and everything surrounding it.   I want to see other musicians succeed at getting their music out in front of listeners.  I've helped people in the past, whenever I run across someone that I really like - I help them as I can and its never had anything to do with whether theyíre friends or on my label or on friends labels.  I'm very open about how I do things whether we're talking how I recorded something or how I set up a website.  So taking that to the furthest level of actually launching a label makes sense to me.   I also launched it in such a way that that it's more of a collaborative artist collective than a true label.  It's a blend in a way.  

AV:  Considering the environment that you operate in how important is it for yourself and the artists you work with to be fluent in the language of the net including the use of social networking sites and to understand how to create a website and market their/your music?  

JKN:  Critical!  I can't remember the last time I bought an album on the ambient or electronic side of the musical fence that wasn't online.  All of the fans are online, all the labels, all the artists...  This is where we're all connected - through ning, facebook, twitter,, myspace, soundcloud, forums, and mailing lists.   

And this is where the label steps in and helps artists.   Not everyone is fantastic at everything.  Finding friends to work with, making connections, helping people and getting help back - that's what it's all about.   

AV:  So as an artist in your own right will there ever be new material from you that shows up on Relaxed Machinery in the future?  

JKN:  Oh yes, definitely.  After a very long break from recording I'm getting everything set back up, have bought some new gear to get things going.  I just bought a used fretless bass and I'm in a bit of heaven with it...  I have more than six years of ideas in my head waiting to come out.   I've played piano this whole time - and occasionally some synth or plugged in my bass - but it's time to hit record.  I honestly think once I get past the initial hurdle of figuring out some new software... a floodgate will open. 

I also have plans to release the last project I was working on before I stopped which was much more of a minimal techno album.   A mastering engineer friend of mine (Rob at the Sound-O-Mat) has agreed to tackle it and I'm thrilled by the prospect.  The album is called "Kinetoscope". 

I'm also hoping to have an album of brand new material called 08.09.10 out later this year.   We'll see - with me it's always "done when it's done".  Sometimes they go faster and sometimes they go a lot slower.   

I should also mention that I'll be shortly re-releasing my "Temporal Arc" album which was originally under my Interstitial artist name.  The album was released on a New York label called Red Antenna in 2001.   In fact it was reviewed here on Ambient Visions way back when by the dearly missed Jim Brenholts.  He was such a great person for the ambient community.  I miss him. 

AV:  When looking at potential artists to join up with Relaxed Machinery what kind of musician would fit in with the goals and the atmosphere of this new venture?   

JKN:  They have to be friends.  They may be brand new friends - but there has to be something that clicks with me.   This is a collective of people and a very small one.  Everyone on the label I knew prior to discussing releasing except for Carl - and that friendship clicked right away.   

Obviously, after friendship is the music.  I really have to like what they're doing and believe in where they're going.  It's a gut feeling. 

I definitely don't foresee adding more than 1 or 2 other artists this year, if that.  Iíve already had to turn away a few people I would have really liked to have on the label due to not enough time. 

AV:  Do you ever see a time when ambient music and some of the other niche genres of music finally be able to claim a larger market share than what they have had for years?  

JKN:  This is such a tough question because were talking about music that is almost intended from the outset to be in the background, not have catchy hooks, a chorus you can sing along to, etc    

Yes, I definitely think ambient and related genres of music can claim a larger market share.   With the amazing connections that occur on the Internet  fans of music that's similar to ambient can make the leap from whatever it is they're listening to to ambient fairly quickly.    

As an example, the recent film, Shutter Island, had music by Brian Eno, John Cage, Max Richter, etc there were a flurry of mentions across social networks about the soundtrack being phenomenal to people, whether they were already fans of this music or not.   Brief, but nice to see.   I haven't seen the movie, I have no idea if it's good or not but three cheers for the soundtrack!  

Back to the question, yes  I definitely see there being a much larger audience out there for ambient and instrumental music of various types.   The fact someone doesn't have to go into a store and spend $15 or $20 totally cold on a cd now  and can try this music through iTunes or small labels without a huge investment is also a big plus.  

Yes, I think there's definitely hope for more widespread listeners. 

AV:  What would it take from the ambient (new age, techno, fill in the blank) community to push this music out beyond the limits that we seem to have reached in terms of market share? Is there anything that can be done to break new ground, to open up new sales opportunities or to reach out to those who might simply not have heard of this type of music before?  

JKN:  I'm trying to find ways to get to the "casual listeners" out there that might like instrumental music and just don't go looking for it.  This is why I wanted to move into iTunes and Amazon and not launch a centralized isolated store. Of course, that means decentralization and fragmentation - so there are pros and cons.   

I want to satisfy the ambient fans and also get out of the familiar ambient territory a bit.  Branch out and expand the initial ambient fanbase by reaching out to people that like electronic music, minimal, techno, electro, classical, new age, and soundtrack music.   These people would definitely like what we're doing, but maybe don't go looking for it.   I hope to get in position for them to stumble across us as time goes on.  Bringing the music to them is what its all about. 

I also want to take a quick moment to mention all the Internet radio stations out there, like, Lounging Sound,, and for playing ambient all the time.   We had a wonderful label launch party in January on where the Zen Caffeine program host, David Herpich, dedicated his entire show to Relaxed Machinery artists including playing our first release, Steve Brand  Circular Scriptures in its entirety.     

Events like this are fantastic  and we plan to do this again with StillStream in the future for new album releases.  It gives listeners a chance to hear the new album and to chat with us on StillStreams chat room.  Its a special event  and a way for people new to ambient to get a feel for it.  I cant say enough good things about StillStream! 

We've also launched a new community website at  - we want to make it a creativity friendly place for people to share their new music, artwork, photographs, poetry, and writing.  Its a place where artists and listeners and fans can talk about their favorite things.   We'll be featuring members on the front page weekly to bring attention to them and promote discussion.    

In fact,  is going to be a home for multiple labels and artists and not just Relaxed Machinery.    StillStream and Earth Mantra have decided to use the site as their official community.   Dean Richards who records as Disturbed Earth is launching a new label that will run similar to Relaxed Machinery, and he's also decided to make  their home community.    Ping Things (label and store for The Ambient Ping live concert series in Toronto) has also moved to using the community.  We welcome other labels and sites that don't currently have a community home to join in. I'm so thrilled that StillStream, Earth Mantra, Dean, and Ping Things have joined in! 

AV:  Anything else you'd care to share with our readers about your music, Relaxed Machinery or what you thought about the last Star Trek movie? Just an opportunity for you to cover anything that was missed during our chat.  

JKN:  First off, I'd like to thank you for asking to do an interview.  It's wonderful to get a chance to go into detail about the label and the artists and what we're trying to do, especially on Ambient Visions which has been around for so long.   

I love music and the ambient scene and have been a part of it online for at least a decade now (not to mention the general music scene since I was a kid), it's wonderful to me to have a label and be able to help others out.    

I know Iíve mentioned it several times in the interview, but the most important thing to me with my music, and with the label are connections.   I love it when someone hears one of my songs and drops me a note it makes my day. With the label, I get just as excited if someone mentions they listened to Steve's Circular Scriptures or that they're looking forward to one of the upcoming albums.    

That means that we did something right.   Someone heard about the music, and listened and cared enough to comment about it.   What a wonderful thing! 

p.s.   Here are links to sites I mentioned:   

Oh  and I really liked the last Star Trek movie  great reboot!   I cant wait for the next one.

AV: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions and with such detail as well which is always an added bonus. I'll be keeping an eye on the horizon and see what you are able to accomplish with Relaxed Machinery but right now things are looking great. Good luck.