Fragments:  
AV Talks with Steve Robers aka Amongst Myselves

 

Steve Roberts aka
Amongst Myselves

Visit Steve's website

 

Fragments

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AV:  Where did your love of music originally come from?  

SR:  Wow what a question. I started out listening to popular music as I imagine most people did in the 70s. My brothers had a great influence in what I heard in my early life having 3 older ones. It's funny but I think what I love is sound more so than music especially since I consider lots of the music I now listen to and compose to be more sound art than music. Be it naturally created sound or electronically realised.

AV:  Who were some of the first electronic/atmospheric music artists that you listened to and what was it that attracted you to this kind of music?

SR:  I probably started hearing Electro Acoustic sounds when I was quite young on an Australian radio program, "Scratching the Surface". My brother and I thought it was funny and scary, I was only 12 years old or so. It was interesting because unlike pop music you didn't really know what was going to happen next. It was also on late at night when the surrounding environment was quiet. From this left field influence to something a bit more popular, one of my brothers bought a Tomita album, I think it was Snowflakes are Dancing. My brother having more main stream interests was also into "classical" orchestral music which I suppose Snowflakes fell into. I found it interesting in that he used synthesisers to create orchestral sounding instruments. It was using a synth to recreate acoustic instruments. I was just as intrigued by the rear cover of the record which had a picture of Isao in his studio surrounded but all his gear. I wanted that ! But that was the mainstream. What I found more interesting were snippets of synths that I would hear in pop music which were not imitating an acoustic instrument but were producing something I'd never heard before. I also started hearing other rock groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rick Wakeman, Genesis, all using synths as a main part of their music but once again nothing new in the style of music.

As far as atmospheric music I think Tangerine Dream would have been an initial spark for me. This lead to Edgar Froese's Epsilon in Malaysian Pale which certainly had a great influence especially since I had a second-hand album full of scratches which certainly added to the effect. Another album that was part of that era for me is David Bedford's "The Odyssey". For me the long pieces with minimal sequence lines really started me off in the direction of long form beatless music. Continuing on, Steve Roach and Robert Rich helped bolster my direction.

AV:  What are some of the defining characteristics of electronic/atmospheric/ambient music that pulls people away from the mainstream pop/rock genres that so inundates the airwaves of our society? Do you think of these genres as an acquired taste if you've never been exposed to them before?

SR:  I think most peoples idea of music falls into conventional songs and instrumental works or “Organised sound” as Edgard Varčse put it. I personally don't really think of ambient music as music, it's more sound art. Sure there maybe sections of music but I think of the conventional music sections within my own album, Fragments as like a passing band or musical thought. What I think attracts people to ambient sounds is the imagery that is created in the mind when listening to it. There are quite often spaces within the sound for you to have thoughts. More experimental works eg. Electro-acoustics can be an acquired taste but I think of these areas more like modern visual art in the sense that it's not the result that's of interest but more so the process and reasons for doing the piece are as important. For me these more experimental sounds are very important as they influence the less experimental to create a more acquired result.

AV:  So was it as simple as getting together a couple of old cassette decks and a couple of synthesisers for you to begin composing? At this point in time what was it that you were hoping to accomplish and what was it that you actually did accomplish with such a modest equipment base with your music?  

SR:  During that period I seemed to have lots of output but no real way of realising or recording what I had imagined. It was more of a learning stage where I was trying all these ideas out to see what would happen. I had only monosynths (one note at a time), a very simple sequencer (no computers at this stage), a noisy reverb unit and so I essentially would have to imagine what I wanted from the beginning of the idea. For me now this seemed like a great way of learning what I needed to do to achieve a certain sound. It was during this stage that I found myself limited by technology that was affordable. Like I mentioned before I salivated at the idea of having Tomita's studio. Today I think the opposite has happened in that I'm overwhelmed by what computer composing software can do. I've not really gone into the depths of the programs capability since all I really want is something that can record audio and midi and apply effects. Thus another limitation. Simple really.

AV:  Tell me about some of the material you released as Southern Garden and what you liked about that period of you musical career?  

SR:  I was fascinated by the beauty and serenity of the natural environment during that part of my life. I wanted so desperately to travel and see all these wonderful locations I had read about within Australia. I think the majority of my music reflected my thoughts of these places. There was nothing political in my music during that period though I did play guitar in a punk band at this time which was a REAL contrast. Later I started doing pieces which were about the destruction and removal of these natural places. I suppose this started around the time I went to university to study media which made me more aware of the wider world.

AV:  When did you start going by the name of Amongst Myselves and was there a significance to why you chose this for your performance name?  

SR:  It was at a stage when I'd recently had enough of hard working in the film industry which was a struggle for 6 years and decided that my real interest was in audio. It was also a period when ambient music had been re-invented due to the dance scene. Chill out music was now here. As you may be aware my name comes from a Future Sound of London track title, "Among Myself". I was entranced by their music - the darkness and film soundtrack like quality of album, "Dead Cities" was stunning. The funniest bit about how I found the group was via a Playstation game named Wipeout 2097 in which their track "We Have Explosive" was my choice during play. I looked them up and bought everything they released at this time. I chose the name as it reflected the nature of how I created my stuff - from within me and by me. Having been in many bands, finding a name has always been a difficult thing so I learnt that not trying too hard was the best approach. There were some other suggested names around at the time which I can't remember though they would be handy for releasing under at some stage.

AV:  The Sun in the Bottle album that came out back in 1999 was definitely new age in its basis with a hint of electro-acoustics. What was there about new age musical styling that you didn't feel led to continue to pursue it since Still Life moved more in the direction of ambient/space/drone music?  

SR:  I didn't feel my strength was in regular, "normal" music composing but within texture creation. I don't have a great opinion of New Age music as I feel it's like something a computer would create given certain parameters. Of course this is a complete generalisation but I felt the image of New Age music was all alternative religions and native peoples and since I was either it wasn't really the thing for me to do. "New Age" music to me was an extension of the drug Prozac which gives the impression that you have to be happy all the time. It's natural to feel down every now and then.

AV:  I've always been curious even after all these years about true beatless ambient or drone releases. As a composer how is it that you "compose" something that to the casual listener doesn't seem to have any structure? How do you start and how do you know you are done with a piece?  

SR:  I always start with a sound / texture. Sometimes I'll sit at a keyboard and hit a random patch key and after many tries I get a sound that is playable. From this I generally get an idea of what the sound and eventually piece can do. Sometimes it goes nowhere but when it does work you can't stop until you've finished, you just want to keep going. This is where computer based software can get in your way. Although it has infinite possibilities it also takes some time to get there. I've often stalled because I've forgotten how to do something or there's a bug and the computer crashes. How the piece progresses is based on my preferences and moods. Once the piece is getting fully developed I get images of what the piece is doing and thus the title comes around and the track develops even further. 

On past albums I've found the random process of using Convolution to be interesting. It's a process often used to recreate reverbs of physical spaces based around an audio recording which is used as a impulse response. But instead of giving the program an impulse of say a cathedral you give it the sound of a guitar strum. My piece "5am Melbourne 1996" is almost completely created with guitar and the sound from a television commercial. It gives really interesting and usable results. I try for long  convolutions sometimes up to 4 minutes in length. So I have often used the evolution of that one sound as the structure of a whole track. This can quite often be the basis of the track's structure. 

AV:  Tell me about your association with Ultima Thule and how it was that you came to create their theme music? How influential was Ultima Thule in regards to the breadth of electronic music that you were exposed to?  

SR:  George Cruickshank has been a great supporter of Australian ambient music and the ambient music scene in general. I had just released "Still Life" and of course I sent a copy to George. Suddenly I get an email in almost note form (George is a very busy man), asking to ring him to discuss using "Ship of Dreams" as the new title music. I was stunned. We had a quick talk and he emailed me what he needed as far as edits for the radio program. So I got to work on shortening the piece to suit the times George asked for and recording me doing some appropriate sonorous voice and there you have it. My work with George has continued with helping him out with the mastering of "Chasing the Dawn: Ultima Thule Ambient 01" compilation CD. Did you know George is the Sovereign Head of State of his own micro-nation ? You'll have to ask him about that or go to http://www.atlantium.org

AV:  In your bio you state that after the success of Still Life you "realised that you were headed in the right direction; a direction which is constantly challenging, trying to break away from the normal". What is it that you find challenging about working with these types of compositions and why are you trying to break away from normal?  

SR:  I've always tried to be different from the mainstream. I feel the constant dumbing down and conformity of modern society to be very destructive and many of the problems the world faces are based on the capitalist goals of money. I suppose it's an attempt to stand out as being different.

AV:  You also did sound design on short films a few years back. How did that come about and why did you find it inspiring in regards to the work you do as Amongst Myselves?  

SR:  I studied film at University which eventually led to starting up a visual effects company with 3 colleagues. It was during this demanding period that I realised that even though I had achieved what many could only dream of within the industry that it was not cutting it for me and decided to follow the interest of music instead of the money. This was not to say that I had cut all ties with the film industry. I met up with old college friends years later who asked if I'd be interested in doing sound for some shorts. I jumped at idea because in many ways I see my style and approach to music being quite similar if not the same as film sound. Well my approach anyway. It was also another creative outlet that was outside the scope of Amongst Myselves.

AV:  In regards to composing music for films is it a different mindset compared to how you work when you are creating music for you own projects?

SR:  The idea that someone else is the director is a welcome change of thought process and a challenge at the same time. I get images in my head of what my Amongst Myselves tracks are saying whereas with the films I'm given the image and it's up to me to interpret them to a certain level. My only stumbling block is that I'm quite controlling and for all the films I've worked on I've done ALL the sound apart from the dialogue recording. I know that generally sound effects and music is a compromise area where neither department really know what the outcome will be whereas doing it all yourself you sculpt it there and then. Very satisfying. For me the line between sound effect and music is blurred. This is another reason why I like to do both sound effects and music for a film.

AV:  Your latest effort is called Fragments. This is a rather interesting project that uses elements from three previous albums in new ways. What were your goals in using elements of these previous releases to be the foundation of your newest release?

SR:  As an exercise I have often used Sony Acid which is a loop based composing package based around audio loops to compose new simple pieces of music from a large library of loops that I've gathered over the years. This lead me to think about doing it with my own work. I'm never really finished with a piece and the only way to stop working on it is to decide to release something and have the CDs pressed. That's usually the end of musical piece for me but as an experiment one day I dragged off all the audio from my previous releases and started laying them up in Cakewalk Sonar. It was totally random to start with. But I started to find sections that worked well together and I knew it I started  to piece a mood through the whole album. Fragments uses lots of field recordings which I love to have in my work. It reflects back to those feelings of the natural environment that I had during the Southern Garden days. Not all of the work on Fragments is from archive. Lots of it is new to help extend the ideas that the archival audio has started.

AV:  Tell me about field recordings. Where do you go looking for them and how do you use them in your compositional work?

SR:  I tend to take my field recorder whenever I go on a holiday trip or a filming trip. Mostly they are natural ambience in outback / country locations. I also do recordings of unusual sounds within the city scape and play around with them. Quite often I'll use a field recording in a convolution program to get something new. I don't intentionally go out to find sounds but keep an ear open for any sounds that I come across on a daily basis.

AV:  Even though Fragments consists of 9 tracks do you see the album as a single compositional piece that offers the listener a unified sound experience? Why so?

SR:  I do see Fragments as one piece and although I have created 9 tracks amongst this piece they really are markers to where the piece turns as opposed to separate tracks. It's a bit silly but I make separate tracks sometimes so it makes selection by radio stations easier with I think is a confidence thing so the next big challenge would be to release a one track album.

AV:  Is it challenging for you to bring together elements of 3 older sources plus new elements and bring them all together as something that sounds like they belong together? If you can could you please describe the process that had to occur for this to happen the way you envisioned it?

SR:  It's a difficult thing because it's not a jigsaw. Jigsaws only go together in one way. It's basically like any other process a composer would use. You need to have the same musical key so the tones go together. This is where it was easier for me as I tragically found that I put many of my tracks in the key of D. Probably a throwback to being a guitar player. Must stop doing that. A piece of music is always going to flow from the mood you are in or a mood you feel like exploring. I don't think it's challenging at all it's really fun and natural for me to move these different sections around.

AV:  You've been featured on several samplers over the years including a couple of volumes of ambient@hyppereal.com, Ultima Thule's sampler and of course the Dark Duck Download Project. How has this helped you to get exposure for the music of Amongst Myselves? How do you decide what track(s) to contribute to a sampler?

SR:  I've been very fortunate with the compilations. I try to give the record label something that is new and ready for the public. In most cases it's been a track that I've just finished working on. You also have to take into account the mood of the compilation album. The ambient@hyperreal albums were great in the sense that it was a listener voted process which is a great confidence boost. The exposure is great for all of the composers as long as there is backup in the form of marketing etc. It's a pity they haven't continued but we all know sales of CDs have plummeted and quite often the people behind the release are interested in money in the end and also they don't do the sums to realise that money making and ambient music are very difficult indeed.

AV:  It also sounds like you have put a lot of effort into the "concert in your living room" performance to eventually be released on DVD. What are you hoping to accomplish with this performance and how will it be pushing the boundaries of what you have already done?

SR:  Well it started out as being a "proper" live show but due to several circumstances this fell apart. The people I was working with had difficulty in realising the music especially the slow evolving pieces. Adding to this, the long period of time which it was taking to get all the visuals and music to a stage where I thought we were ready to perform was affecting the enthusiasm. So we decided to cut our losses and using the idea Jarré used. The best outcome now was to release a DVD. With the help of friend and artist Bernard Haseloff we created projection visuals for the whole show so I'm planning to edit in these visuals with the live performance. The live performance elements are currently being recorded and I have quite a lot of visual content to finalise. Following this stage I have the mixing of the audio to complete of which I aiming to do as a surround mix. The idea behind the DVD is really to push the visual / audio ideas that I have for the music.

AV:  How much inspiration do you still find in the more innovative musical groups or solo acts working in the more mainstream genres of the music business? (Banco de Gaia, Thomas Dolby, Bjork, Underworld, Art of Noise etc.) Even in the homogenized world of pop music are there still bright spots that keep cropping up that make it worthwhile to at least listen now and again?

SR:  One of my most favourite finds in the last few years is when I saw a film clip on Rage. Rage is a all night music video program in Australia that shows all range of video clips. The clips was quite long and the music was very slow and there were just some people dressed in white dancing on a rocky beach. It was fantastic and as the title of the band came up I soon got to know Sigur Rós. I've found their music to be very inspirational especially for a non-speaker of  Icelandic, even the lyrics are just another instrument. One of the tracks off of Auburn Silhouette is a direct nod to my appreciation of their music.

AV:  Having started with a couple of cassette recorders and a couple of synthesizers how do you feel about the technology that you use today? How has technology allowed you to expand your vision and set new goals for yourself in regards to where you want your music to take you?

SR:  Well it's a lot easier and cheaper to record high quality sound. I use Cakewalk Sonar and have used Cakewalk products since around 1990. Back then it was only MIDI data though. I use probably 50% software based synthesizers mainly because their quality supersedes my hardware synths. Though I do have a couple of modular synths that are fun to play around with that a computer screen will never replace. Plus I can have unlimited patches at the touch of button. The convolution method I use has only been available since computers came to be used for music and sound. I find the software to be extremely flexible which has it's own demons as it make some things quite complicated to do. Sometimes I think back to the days of the cassette decks and think how easy it was to do some things but I have forgotten how bad the sound quality was. One of the main benefits for me is to be able to recall a track within seconds to exactly how I left it whereas in the days of cassette tapes that was a little problematic. I could learn lots more about the software and probably do things easier but I find too many people on the Cakewalk forum doing exactly this and I'm not sure they actually do any composing.

AV:  Finally, what do you want to experiment with in regards to your music that you haven't already done to date? Looking back on your work to date how do you feel about what you have already done?

SR:  I've already a direction for my next New release which is looking to be quite Dark and VERY minimal but that comes after the DVD and associated CD of the Live show. Hopefully showing another side of Amongst Myselves. It's interesting when I'm working on releasing an album. Once it's sitting in the boxes all pressed and looking great I turn into marketing mode and treat it likes it's someone else's music. It's only when I'm 6 - 12 months from the release that I can really enjoy one of my CDs. You have your head in it for months and often years and you do get sick of it to some degree but it is when you listen back that you think did I do this ? It sounds great !

AV:  Well I certainly like where you have been and where you are going in terms of your sound art and I thank you ever so much for taking the time out to talk to Ambient Visions and I wish you much success in the years to come. I know I'll be keeping tabs on your efforts. Take care.