Talks with John Lyell
AV: Your bio says you became a musician in 1984. What was it that motivated you to want to start creating your own music?
JL: Well at the time I was 17 yrs. old and a junior in high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do as far as a career goes. I had moved to a new school the year before and met new and different people. One bunch of people that I had met at the time were musicians and they played guitar. I saw them play and they were really good. I remember hanging out with these guys listening to the Van Halen debut album while driving around in somebody's car.
After watching these guys play that stuff on guitar it really inspired me. I mean something just clicked in my mind right then and there that that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to become a musician. I do remember that I was always very deeply into music since I was about 11 or 12 yrs. old but hadn't yet picked up an instrument at that young age.
AV: Starting off was there a particular instrument that you preferred to play and compose on? What drew you to this instrument as opposed to all the others you might have worked with?
JL: Yes, I chose to start playing guitar. I was really into the rock and hard rock music of the day like Van Halen, Ozzy Osborne, Dio, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Dokken, Ratt, The Scorpions, but later on really getting into the more psychedelic rock like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, etc. I don't know how to say it other than the guitar is the instrument that seemed to be calling out to me and I took to it like a fish in water.
AV: What kinds of music were you composing/playing back then?
JL: Back then as a guitar player I was writing and playing 80's style rock and hard rock which is what was happening at the time.
AV: Besides what you actually played what other types of music did you hear that really interested you and that perhaps had you thinking that it would be nice to experiment with that style of playing? (other than ambient/space)
JL: I went to a well known music school in Hollywood, California called GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology) back in September of 1988.
After returning home from that in March of 1989 I really changed my direction musically. Within a year or two I purchased my first synthesizer (a Korg DW-6000). I was looking to branch out and implement keyboards into my writing. I gave the hard rock "band" thing one more shot when I moved to L.A. again in the spring of 1993. I then moved back to Minneapolis in May of 1994 very determined to write instrumental synth based music that I could compose and perform all by myself. I had gotten pretty burned out on trying to do the "band" thing.
Plus, I was starting to get interested in some of the film soundtrack music that I had heard namely Vangelis and especially the "Blade Runner" soundtrack which is to this day probably still my favorite film soundtrack.
AV: Was hearing the Hearts of Space radio show like an epiphany for you in regards to ambient/space music? Tell me about what went through your mind after you heard the music featured on this program?
JL: Back in the summer of 1994 I had been over to my friend Brent Reiland's house and was checking out his small studio in his basement. He had a Korg M1 synth at the time and he played me some of the ambient music he had been experimenting with which I thought was pretty cool. Then before I left that night he loaned me a CD he had and it was Steve Roach's "Quiet Music". He then told me about the Hearts of Space Radio program. So, I listened to the "Quiet Music" CD and listened to a broadcast of "Hearts of Space". After I heard the "Hearts of Space" program for the first time something really clicked in my mind andI was absolutely hooked !! It immediately dawned on me that THIS was the kind of music I wanted to start composing. It was an absolute Epiphany !!
AV: How did you go about immersing yourself in ambient/space music after being exposed to it? Who were some of the first artists that you started listening to on a regular basis?
JL: The "Quiet Music" CD from Steve Roach was probably the first full CD that I had heard. So of course, I started listening to more of Steve Roach's stuff. I also started taping some of the "Hearts of Space" broadcasts (from 1994-1995) on my boom box so that I could listen back to them as many times as I wanted and I still have those tapes to this day. I was heavily into Vangelis at about the same time since I had just purchased the "Blade Runner" soundtrack in 1994 and I already had the "Themes" CD by Vangelis as well. Those two CD's from Vangelis were a HUGE influence in my early synth years which was just before I discovered Steve Roach and the Hearts of Space thing. I had also heard about Robert Rich (probably from the Hearts of Space program) and started seeking out his stuff as well. Definitely the "Strata" and "Soma" CD's by Roach and Rich I listened to quite a bit in those early days. I also had a Hearts of Space compilation CD called "The Absolute Sound" which exposed me to alot of other ambient artist's music as well.
Another artist that I was beginning to listen to at about the same time was "Enigma". From about their 2nd CD on is when I really started to listen to them. I really dig the slow & mid-tempo songs from "Enigma" which was definitely an influence as well.
AV: Almost right along side this new found passion for ambient/space music was the beginnings of your dabblings in the graphic arts. Was this an offshoot of your new interest in ambient/space music or was this something you were interested in prior to this?
AV: Do you feel that the music you create as an ambient/space musician is simply another expression of your interests in astronomy and art? How much do those interests spill over into the kinds of music that you compose and would your music be radically different if those interests weren't there?
JL: I think it probably is another expression of my interests in astronomy and art. The interests that I have with everything "cosmic" like the concept of time travel, wormholes, space travel, astronomy in general have played a HUGE role in my inspiration for composing the spacemusic that I do. Having said that I think my previous interests in psychedelic rock music such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix has carried over into my interest in ambient/spacemusic. I'm just an absolute Led Zeppelin FREAK !! I probably learned about two thirds of Zeppelin's material as a guitar player since back in about 1991. That band is my all time favorite and the individual musicians from Zeppelin are my favorite as well. Having liked the psychedelic rock so much it is no wonder that I took so heavily to ambient & spacemusic when I was exposed to it.
My music would definitely be different if I hadn't had the astronomy influence no doubt about it. In what way would it be different, I don't know. However, I do still write and compose different styles of music besides ambient & spacemusic. I have some acoustic instrumental music that I haven't released yet (kind of like Zeppelin meets old Rolling Stones). I have also recorded some material that's more in the vein of "Enigma" that is un-released. And I have some synth based instrumental music that I would classify as "film soundtrack" music that is un-released as well. There are times when I'm not in the right mood to compose ambient music. I also still play and compose pop and rock music as well. It just depends on my mood.
AV: Tell me about some of your first compositions as an ambient/space musician? Were you happy with what you were able to create in those early stages of your career?
JL: Most of the first compositions that I had come up with were more "new age-film soundtrack" kinds of songs since my earliest synth influence was Vangelis. As far as being happy with those compositions, they were not quite finished. I was happy with it stylistically but could sense that I needed to get a little more seasoned for coming up with complete compositions. As far as my first spacemusic compositions go I knew I was headed in the right direction but at the time lacked some of the equipment necessary to open up some more doors for myself musically. I knew that I needed to acquire more synthesizers and recording gear to have more and different types of sounds available to me to accomplish what I had in mind. The new gear that I needed to help me better compose the ambient music would eventually take me a couple of years to acquire.
AV: When was it that you felt that you were ready to put some of your music down in a more permanent form and release it to the public?
JL: I'd say the material that I was writing in 1997 was the first round of compositions that I felt was ready to be released which is the stuff that ended up on "Wormholes" in 1998.
AV: When was it that you hooked up with Brent Reiland and how did the two of you decide to work together on what would become your first release called Wormholes?
JL: Brent and I were friends from back when I was in my early to mid 20's.
We were both guitar players and into rock and hard rock. He was introduced to me by a mutual friend who was a drummer. We started hanging out more as the mid 90's approached. We decided in 1997 that we would form our own Record Label (Solar Wind Productions) for releasing joint ambient/spacemusic projects. It helped from a money standpoint to go in on it together for our first release so we could split the cost of the CD manufacturing. We thought that two heads were better than one when it came to having to do all the business stuff that came along with it.
AV: Tell me about the challenges of working with another musician on a project and how the collaborative process between the two of you worked?
AV: Was Wormholes the CD that you had envisioned when you started the project or was it more of a learning process in regards to your music and where the next project would take you?
JL: It was definitely a learning process both from the graphics standpoint and musically. I'd say that musically it ended up pretty close to what we had envisioned. We had some problems with the graphics because we ended up trying to use a "neon ink" to try and achieve the exact look as it was in my computer. We found out that print doesn't exactly work that way and it was a lesson learned. At the time we were still "greenhorns" when it came to graphics and printing knowledge.
For my first release I wanted to show different styles of ambient, new age and film soundtrack music so in that sense it turned out exactly as I had planned from a style standpoint at least for me and probably for Brent as well.
AV: It must have been an ok kind of experience that you had with Brent since you teamed up again for another album in 2002 called Synthetic Universe. What adjustments did you make from your first pairing and how did that affect the music that ended up on this release?
JL: Well "Wormholes" ended up getting us a distribution deal with Rising Star Records the same people who owned New Age Voice Magazine. But that didn't happen until 5 or 6 months after we had actually released the CD. So our distribution deal was for one year from March of 1999-2000. That definitely lit a fire under our behinds to work on a follow up. We knew that on our second release we were going to focus in on it being more ambient/spacemusic the whole way through "warm" and "airy" with no dark ambient or other such stuff.
"Synthetic Universe" was also mostly a "compilation" CD with only 2 tracks being collaborative done in the same manner as before with "Wormholes" 4 songs were his, 4 songs were mine and 2 songs were collaborative.
AV: Did you feel that Synthetic Universe showed the growth that the two of you had made as musicians since the time of the release of Wormholes? Looking at the two releases from a distance now tell me about the differences in style that characterize these two albums.
JL: We both felt that it showed ALOT of growth. "Synthetic Universe" being much more consistent stylistically throughout the whole CD than "Wormholes". Plus, we felt our writing had evolved as well. And both of us had acquired some new synths and other toys with which to write these new ideas with. When it was finished we knew we had a really good CD. "Wormholes" was kind of a showcase of music that was really all over the map showing what we could do while "Synthetic Universe" just really focused in on the spacemusic style the whole way through.
AV: Did Synthetic Universe receive more airplay than did your previous release? It seems that I heard quite a bit of Synthetic Universe but not nearly as much of Wormholes.
JL: Yes, it definitely did. We ended up charting as high as number 43 in the top 100 for radio airplay in April of 2002 with "Synthetic Universe". Since the material was generally "warmer" in nature and more spacemusic centered than "Wormholes" it got quite a bit more airplay. Although we did get some decent airplay with several songs from the Wormholes CD .the last song on the CD "Starchild" seemed to be the favored cut for radio stations.
AV: And of course that brings us to your latest release Dimensions but with a difference...this one is a solo effort from you rather than a joint venture with another musician. So what did you want to do as a solo artist that was not being accomplished within the material that was being recorded with Brent?
JL: It was more an issue of not having to wait on someone else's life schedule as well as being an artist in my own right. I knew it was time to break out on my own so that I could release music at my own pace and not have to get everything that I do ok'd by the other person.
Also, from a time and money standpoint I couldn't work on anymore joint efforts with Brent and expect to release any solo stuff of my own. Plus, I had specific visions of what I wanted my CD cover art to look like for my next one. All the cover art for "Dimensions" was done in 2001 five years earlier and it was just waiting for my first solo release.
AV: There seems to be large spaces of time in between your releases. Is that a deliberate effort to take your time with your music and make it as good as it can be or something else?
JL: Definitely NOT planned. The "Wormholes" release carried over into 2000 because of the distribution deal with Rising Star. Which then really left us two years between the end of "Wormholes" and the release of "Synthetic Universe". Some of the delay of getting "Synthetic Universe" out was due to waiting on Brent's schedule at the time. He had more going on in his life than I did and it therefore delayed the project by about 4 months. However, I don't like to rush stuff out the door either. I do like to take my time and produce QUALITY material over quantity but not that much time.
And to re-iterate the fact that we were our own record label (Solar Wind Productions). We were an actual corporation that we ran as a business. We did virtually everything which included all the business and leg work stuff, getting Corporate taxes done at the end of every year and all of the crap that comes with it. That can take a good bit of time away from being creative and writing new material. If money were no object for me I'd gladly pay people to do alot of this stuff so I could just focus on making the music. I'm sure Steve Roach is probably at that point now and has been for some time and that is probably why he can put out as much music as he does.
As far as the 4 year gap between "Synthetic Universe" and my first solo release "Dimensions" that was unfortunately due to alot of bad life stuff that I had to deal with over a two to three year period that put music on the back burner for awhile. Fortunately, all of that stuff is behind me now and I look forward to releasing CD's with less time in between as long as nothing unexpected comes up in life.
However, since I still have to do EVERYTHING myself (Website, Bio's, Radio Station mailings, CD cover design, e-mail correspondence, line up CD reviews, designing promotional materials, etc.) and currently work another part-time job, I probably don't think I could release more than one CD in a year. Maybe one every year and half to two years. After a CD release I usually need 3 to 4 months to recover from it as I'm usually pretty exhausted with having to do so much stuff besides the music myself.
The other thing is that it's important to me to take some time out away from recording and writing to just "listen" to music for enjoyment's sake. To listen as a normal listener and not always be analyzing the hell out of it like I would when I'm in the middle of engineering or mixing music for a CD. I like to take a little time off here and there to just enjoy and experience life as well.
I also have some other styles of music that I mentioned earlier that I eventually want to release that would potentially delay release of another spacemusic CD. However, I'm definitely hoping to have another spacemusic CD out within the next two years at the most.
AV: Do you enjoy having a hands on kind of relationship for all the aspects of your music? (composing, recording, engineering, producing) Do you ever seek out other opinions on a work in progress before it is finished?
JL: I do enjoy having complete control of every aspect of a CD release.
Having said that there are times when I would really like someone else to engineer so I could just focus on the making of the music. At times I do let some close friends and relatives listen to some half done music to get a sense from them of what they think.
AV: Comparing your work on Dimensions with your previous two works what areas do you see that you have grown in regards to your approach to the music either in composing or recording it?
JL: The biggest area that I think I've grown in is composing the music.
There has been some growth in my recording and engineering skills for sure but I think more so in the writing and composing and that is probably due to just more seasoning and maturity.
AV: How important is airplay for ambient/space music? Can an artist still make a go of it even without the airplay?
JL: I think airplay is crucial for ambient music. I'm sure you can get some response from just Internet exposure by itself, or some by word of mouth but to get the maximum exposure you really need to be getting airplay on traditional and online radio stations with traditional radio stations still being the most important. If I wasn't getting airplay on traditional radio I sure don't think I'd be as far along as I've gotten.
AV: What kind of feedback have you been getting since you released Dimensions last year? Does any of this feedback ever have any impact on what you might do with your music in the future?
JL: So far the feedback has been extremely positive. I've had a number of people (fans, radio DJ's, reviewers and friends) say that "Dimensions" is the best stuff I've ever done. One reviewer said that it surpassed "Synthetic Universe" which he thought was a great CD when it came out. Also, it was chosen as one of the top 12 Ambient CD's of 2006 by Bill Binkelman of New Age Reporter which probably says alot considering I didn't release it until very late in the year (November 10, 2006). Makes me think the 4 year wait was worth it.
As far as impacting future releases it definitely gives me inspiration to release more ambient CD's in the future. It would seem that I'm on the right track musically and have really found a niche writing ambient & spacemusic. It shows that I can accomplish something musically without having to rely on doing the "band" thing.......which is SO reliant on other people's life schedules which I got really tired of. Plus, writing ambient/spacemusic is somewhat easier for me because it's not so structured and regimented like pop or rock music is. it's so much more freeform but still with a little bit of structure here and there when need be. I can do it all by myself in my studio with only MY life schedule to worry about.
AV: How important is the internet for artists such as yourself who are involved in ambient/space music to promote, to publicize and to sell the music that you create?
JL: It is of IMMENSE importance !! Without the internet I don't know if I'd be commercially releasing CD's at all with the way things are today in the music business. It has enabled me to reach across the globe and expose many people from different countries to my music who would probably have no other way of hearing about me. I know that back in 1998 Brent and myself were not going to wait around for some record company to hopefully sign us. We'd probably be old and gray before that happened so we said "screw that" we're going to do this ourselves. And having the Internet available to us was the big factor in us releasing this music ourselves and being able to "bypass" the traditional record company and distribution route.
AV: What other genres of music do you still work in and how does that inspire your creativity in regards to ambient/space music?
JL: I also write and play music in the styles of: folk, acoustic, pop, rock & psychedelic rock since those are more guitar oriented in nature. I also sing some lead vocals as well when doing band type of stuff. As I mentioned previously I also compose some different styles of synthesizer based music with some of it sounding more like "Enigma", some more like "new age", some like "film soundtrack". And I even have one instrumental song that sounds like a cross between Pink Floyd and Sade if you can picture that.
How that effects my ambient music is that it sometimes feeds me ideas for ambient music but most of the time I write these other genre's of music to step away from ambient music altogether. Having said that, I usually have at least a hint of "psychedelia" or "dreamy-ness" in most of the styles of music that I compose. After all I was doing the psychedelic rock and hard rock music long before I ever got into the ambient thing. The funny thing is that I initially started doing the synth/ambient thing also to escape the guitar and "band stuff". I got a little burned out on always trying to write music from just the guitar. I guess I've become so interested in every aspect of making music which included branching out and playing other instruments along with the production aspect as well.
I'm not always in the right frame of mind and mood to write ambient music which is of course a very sedate mindset. Sometimes I just gotta play and write some stuff that's more rock oriented like Led Zeppelin or Iron Butterfly or some old Rolling Stones. And lately I've been getting a little more into playing bass guitar since it's really fun to step away from Guitar and Keyboards for periods of time especially from a writing standpoint. I also have a few didjeridoos around, an African Talking Drum, and a Dumbek. I really like implementing just about any instrument that may be called for when writing music of any kind.
I just seem to have an addiction to recording and releasing music. For certain periods of time I can really be a recording junkie, a real studio rat !! Recording music, creating something from nothing is just something that is within me that I HAVE to do. I get such an adrenaline high when I release a new CD and it's such a sense of accomplishment. Having said that there are times when I've been cooped up for too long in my studio and need to get away from it. That's when I usually get the itch to get back into playing live with some acoustic or band stuff.
AV: Do you do any live performances of your ambient/space music? Do you like to perform live?
JL: To date I have not done any live performances of my ambient music. I would LOVE to be able to pull off a live show but It is so difficult to put together a one man ambient show I just don't know if I ever will. I do like to perform live and I've done it in rock bands over the years. I've thought about putting together an ambient show but I just don't have the equipment to do it or the money right now to buy the necessary gear to enable me to put on a live ambient show.
I've seen Robert Rich live 3 different times as well as Ma Ja Le and James Johnson. And I've carefully studied pictures of Steve Roach's live concerts to check out his gear as well. So I've pretty much eyed up their gear to give me an idea of what kind of equipment I would need to pull off a live ambient show. Right now I just don't have enough of the right gear to pull it off. And I'd need to do some pretty extensive programming of certain rhythm tracks before hand to have playing along and that would be a hell of alot of work.
If I could put together a live show it would probably be mostly improvisation as opposed to playing my actual songs from the CD's with maybe some variations on some of my actual songs. It would take some major work to set everything up so that I could do a live show. I'm holding out hope that in the future I can perform some ambient music live but just don't know if it will happen.
AV: What are you looking forward to doing with your music and your art in the years to come that you haven't already done?
JL: Just get it exposed to as many people as possible worldwide and hopefully land some licensing deals with both the art and music which can be a nice source of income if you can get hooked up with that. My goal since day one of becoming a musician is to be able to make a living doing music and not have to have another job and that is extremely difficult. Getting some licensing happening would be a good step in that direction.
Also, I definitely have plans for the future to do a calendar with the art but will probably have to land with a publisher of some kind for that to happen because it's just too expensive otherwise and I'd have no way to distribute it on my own.
AV: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with the readers of Ambient Visions in regards to your music or your art?
JL: I guess my hope is that people will enjoy the music that I've created and hopefully it has relaxed them as well as taken them somewhere at the same time and perhaps even inspired them as well. I look forward to releasing more spacemusic CD's in the future hopefully with not so much time in between releases. Also, I would like to thank Ambient Visions for taking the time to do this interview which is my first ever interview in print.
AV: My pleasure John. I do wish you luck with your future releases of art and music and I hope that you are able to bring them together as you did with Dimensions.