Talks with Paul Ellis about From Out of the Vast Comes Nearness
From Out of the
AV: I know that From out of the Vast Comes Nearness has gone through several changes since the process of creating it began. Tell me about the very beginning of this project and what you had in mind for the music that was going to populate this album.
PE: Well, there's only really been two versions. The first one I started with was focusing on shorter pieces that featured more traditional song forms. I also write different kinds of music besides Ambient. I write a lot of songs, too, typically psychedelic pop to folk rock styles from '64 to about '75. And I originally started this album by mixing my electronic work with a more concise song form.
I guess a couple reference points would be from Patrick O'Hearn to William Orbit to Air, in an almost retro loungey, space bachelor pad style with new age tones. I still think some of the pieces are among my best, but decided that I wanted to keep the electronic ambient music purely focused on the long form minimalist flow. When I started writing early on I tended to keep things short and sweet (Relative to most other Ambient) but lately I have been preferring longer pieces to stretch out in.
AV: I like the title to the new album. What connection is there between the title and the music that eventually ended up on this project?
As for the change in style that came from a trip. I was spending the night with some family in Central Washington, camping out and I got up at about 3: AM and stepping outside I was stunned by the night sky which was so much deeper than I get to see as a city dweller. I was marveling at the almost unbearable hugeness of space and I laid down for a while looking out into it... Then I turned my head and saw the outline of a blade of grass and began thinking of the tiny microcosms held in that blade of grass.
Nothing anyone reading this interview hasn't felt at some point, but it was a deep feeling that night and I decided to redo the new album and put aside the shorter pieces and regroup to writing in the style of my first love, long extended impressionistic space music pieces.
AV: I even like the cover art for this release too. Tell me about the image that adorns this release and how it visually relates to the music within?
PE: That is Pablo Magne's idea of what the title means. He originally made it for the "Watch The Stars Come One By One" title, but it still fits for the new one just as well. Pablo has been doing my covers exclusively for some time now.
AV: Letís just take a song from the new album, say The Click and Chime of Passing Time, and tell me how much of an evolution it went through from the first inklings of what you wanted it to sound like to the final version that is on this album.
PE: That track started with multiple layers of step sequencers driving different synths in real time. Rather than making one looping sequence I made about twenty slightly different variations and would slowly go through them one by one. It was intentional on this album was to keep the sequences changing all the time, although very slowly to establish a mesmerizing quality, but always changing to keep it organic and the interest there. It's a challenge to balance the mesmerizing qualities of minimalism with enough changing parts to keep things evolving and engaging. So I started with 5 interlocking parts, the bass, the higher bells, and a couple other sparkling parts... and I would begin recording, interacting with the sequencers as they were playing... after a few passes I chose the best one and then would embellish the music with other parts played in real time until it felt balanced and done. I like to keep the parts clean and distinct, but I also like to leave in irregularities because to my ears much electronic music is -too- perfect and my ears like the little "imperfections" ...they give it character.
AV: Does your music generally follow a similar evolutionary path as the songs grow and become more than what they started to be?
PE: The description in the previous question would be the closest to a common denominator in my creative process for Ambient... but I have in the past tried very hard with approaching things differently each time and even imposing arbitrary limitations to try and trick myself out of recurring habits. But yeah I would say most of the pieces on this album followed that route: Set up several sequence patterns and record the sequences, changing them in real time until I get a good take and then adding some more parts and melodic lines later until it felt right. Though an exception would be in track 3 "Firefly Rising Outshined By The Moon" where each part was played in real time all the way through the piece and while there is a similarity to the way it pulses along to give it that mesmerizing feel it is not repeating the same parts like a sequencer at all. I don't mean that I played all the parts in real time simultaneously, I mean I would play the melody all the way through in real time, then the bass all the way through, then any other counterparts, etc. In other words it isn't just a looping sequence. The last track, too is multilayered arpeggios playing different parts. So that I wouldn't have to go back later and figure them out I had a mic setup and as I played the chords I would say their name slightly before playing them so there was one track of my voice saying "Amaj7th" , "C9th" or whatever it was....So I was playing this chordal stack of linked arpeggios spontaneously for 21 minutes... then I went back and began layering new sections over the top of that sparkling river of lights.
Being able to change into the right chords on the fly due to the track with the vocal calling out the changes. It was the first piece in terms of the theme of the album being directly about looking at the night sky.
AV: Were any of the songs particularly fun or difficult to help along their path to completion?
PE: Actually, one common thing among all these tracks is they were all a pleasure to create... I'd say the last track "Watch The Stars Come One By One" was the most difficult at times. Mostly because it was 21+ minutes. Trying to get the feel for the overall flow and accentuate it without burying certain vital, but subtle nuances. These are big canvases. The thing is to let them unfold at their own pace. These tracks aren't designed to hit the ground running... just burning right out of the starting gate... It's designed to make a space to live in, not to demand your attention with a hammer and anvil. I've always thought of this style as sound paintings in how they can color your mind.
AV: Almost any DVD that comes out these days has deleted scenes and outtakes as part of the disc. Iím curious, were there outtakes that didnít quite work out like you had wanted or songs that you didnít include on this project for the same reason? Do you come back to them eventually and see if they might become something else?
PE: Oh sure. In fact I made a couple videos for some of the earlier pieces.:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5AwvyJGd-E Watch The Stars Come One By One
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2gLmHw5rx0 The Infinite, Minute By Minute
As you can see I will juggle titles around until I find the right place for them. I made these little videos well before I had finished with the newer version of the album. And I used both titles here in the final version of the album for completely different pieces. When I find a place for these tracks they'll get new titles, but it will give you a taste of where I was originally going with it, musically. Titles I will juggle around until they are published, then it's pretty much set in stone.
AV: Do the songs that ended up on From out of the Vast Comes Nearness have to be molded by you to fit a musical flow or do they naturally weave themselves into a cohesive whole? Please walk me through your intellectual process for culling and choosing the songs that ended up on this album.
I see it as a kind of gardening where I add things, then prune back, I'll remove quite a bit. I tend to be pretty brutal after laying parts down. I don't mind going after and deleting a new layer I added maybe the day before... And maybe that part is fine in and of itself and even has a kind of magic, but just plain isn't fitting right in the piece. It feels like a bump in the road when it goes by... I'll pay attention to that feeling, because sometimes merely muting the part that you loved so much lets some original magic come through that the new part had buried. Sometimes you don't have to nuke a part, but merely slide it to a different area of the piece, which can be another kind of revelation when you hear it contrasting with completely different parts.
AV: Tell me about the equipment and software that you used for this project. Do you settle in with certain equipment that you come back to time and again when recording? Why? How often do you have to upgrade to keep up with the times (equip., software, computer hardware)?
PE: I'd guess that about 75% of the music on this album comes from software synths. I know this will get me no points in the EM community, but frankly I am suspicious of musicians who talk too much about gear (No matter what genre of music we're talking about.). Soft synths have come a long way soundwise. After a few years of financial hardship I am in no position to be buying new gear anyway, but I don't feel any limitations because of it. On the contrary I am happier knowing my gear deeper for having had it a while.
In the words of Stevie Wonder "You gotta use what you've got to use"! I think this side of Ambient music to be analogous to the creativity involved in making animated movies. The genre tends to be studio bound so you come up with ways to inject spontaneity... but you can morph the actual sound of it, the tone of it in extreme ways while it is playing one part.. An example of that would be about 6:25 minutes in on the first track "The Infinite, Minute By Minute" if you listen carefully to the emerging sparkling synth sound you can hear that it is 5 different synth patches fading in and out of each other, sounding like one spiraling shining sound. This is orchestration, but for synths.
This is, to me, the strength of a synthesizer, to animate the sound in an extremely colorful way. Impressionistically. For example on the title piece, track 4 "From Out Of The Vast Comes Nearness" That main rolling bass part was from an inexpensive VST synth called "Gemini" which is mostly designed for trance music, but it was able to create this liquidy modular analog sound... I had it sort of feedbacking on itself in a random aleatoric way and it created this swampy texture that I could just float on for hours.
As for upgrading... of course from time to time I look at the latest and greatest and drool, but to be honest I prefer to really learn one thing deeply and stick with it. I still have my circa 2004 Cubase SX3 as a recording platform and it is completely transparent for me to use as I'm so familiar with it by now. I don't have to stop what I'm doing and read a manual which is inevitably destroying the creative mood, Now I just adjust it on the fly without having to analyze it too much.. The more transparent the better. The less I have to think during recording the better. I read a while ago that William Orbit was still using a really old version of Dr. T's sequencer, which I thought was great.
This is what I am focusing on, to make a listening experience that is of a fantastic unearthly nature, but one that has a lot to do with consciousness and communicating very subtle forms of thought. Things that I can clearly feel, but would have a much harder time putting them into words as precisely.
After I make that first run in developing a piece I listen very, very quietly along with the music to hear for any sounds or melodies arising inside me and then I will go and figure out a way to create that sound within the piece.
AV: This album was due out a while back and is now going to be released on Lotuspike in August 2011. What happened that it ended up shelved for so long and how did you hook up with Lotuspike as the label that will release it?
PE: A lot of factors. I think Lotuspike is about the best fit for what I'm trying to do. They understand where I'm coming from musically and have a very realistic approach to business. I've been friends with Ben Cox for a while and the time just became right to do something. The "taking longer than expected" part was in the redoing of the album.
AV: With the changes that this album has been through how is it that you knew that it was done? No more tweaking, no more evolving but that this was the best it was going to be.
My musical taste is eclectic in the extreme and I used to feel compelled to explore every highway and byway on one album from fiery hot to icy cold and while I liked all the pieces on an album sometimes the dynamic range would be jarring rather than flowing, which is fine for what it is, maybe a more progressive rock approach, but like I said I realized my favorite EM / Spacemusic / Ambient albums had a central mood from which everything else radiated. I realized this as I noticed the effect it had on the room it was played in.
As for explaining the "knowing when it's done", well that's just pure gut feeling for me. I listen and don't feel any "bumps in the road" or things that need to be taken care of whether it's mixing a part louder or quieter or removing it altogether or it's too empty or it's too full. You sort of know the sweet spot when you get there.
AV: During our chats you mentioned that you felt this album was one of your best and that you still listen to it even though it is done. How do you normally feel about a project when it is done in terms of just listening to it for enjoyment and why is Comes Nearness still in your listening rotation?
PE: Well normally you have heard it so much at that point, especially after that last burst of finishing it up you need a break from it to cleanse the palette with some other music for a while, then you come back later and listen, but yeah, with this one I never stopped listening to it. even after it was sent off.
I'm thinking it's because it does do that radiating from a central point and creating an enveloping environment... it makes a place I want to live in. It rewards repeated listening.
I don't really care for drum samples as much in my Ambient work. I've had them, but I find it more satisfying when all the rhythms are coming from interlocking patterns of the synths. Basically that's all the rhythm I need. If I want drums in there I'd much rather have a real drummer. And finding one that is sympathetic to this genre isn't very easy.
AV: Iím not going to try and force you to label this release with a genre but what kinds of moods/feelings/emotions does it evoke in you as you listen to it? Why?
PE: This album basically comes from that event of watching the sky at midnight camping out in the woods and being aware of the vastness of space and the proximity of natural organic, planetary life... thinking of the infinity of space and the microcosm of a blade of grass simultaneously. That's what I hear when I play it. It's a very subtle thing that I am trying to communicate. and I can't separate that out from what I'm hearing. The mood to me is mysterious, blissful, peaceful, Sometimes sunlit sometimes moonlit. Astral architecture, Ethereal living rooms.
Although since you bring up the genre subject. Some may argue the point, but I use the word "Ambient" to describe what I do because I think it is the term that has the broadest base of awareness. Though I also like the terms Spacemusic and EM very much, too. They are just not as well known. When I am discussing it with people whose depth of musical knowledge I don't know I usually say Ambient as it is the most likely to be clear. Readers of Ambient Visions, though know the distinction and yeah "Spacemusic" or "EM" specifically is much more dialed in to what I do.
AV: What kind of responsibilities falls to you and to Lotuspike when you release an album through them? How has it been partnering with them to get this album out?
PE: Basically I sent in the 24 bit masters and hooked them up with Pablo for the cover art and they have taken care of all the rest like a well oiled machine.
AV: Any final thoughts about the August 9, 2011 release of your latest album and what your hopes are for those who listen to it?
PE: I hope it brings out a wonderful deep listening experience for you. Put this on and enter a flowing environment that permeates the space with color and geometries opening and closing like a sentient painting. Let it open at its own pace.... slow down and enjoy the vibrations.
AV: It has been great talking to you again here on Ambient Visions and catching up with your latest project. The album will be coming out officially next week August 9, 2011 so I wish you much success with this album and it really has a great feel to it the few times that I have listened to it over the past few weeks so I your fans will appreciate what you have created here. If you want to read more about Paul you can check out the other interview with him here on Ambient Visions by clicking here.