An interview with Remanence (2006)
Conducted by Daniel D. Stanisic
It was by courtesy of Mr Justin Mitchell, the founder and proprietor of Northamptonshire-based Cold Spring Records, the well-known record label focusing on but not strictly limited to all manner of Industrial music, noted for its exclusive back-catalogue boasting such names as Genesis POrridge/ Psychic TV, Merzbow, Archon Satani, Schloss Tegal and Band of Pain, to name but a few, that I obtained a copy of the first Remanence full-length album "Apparitions" as far back as spring 2000. A votary of all forms of sombre music, Classical, Metal, Industrial and Alternative, I was immediately stricken by its elegant approach to neo-classical orchestration and subtle Dark Ambience interwoven into a well-rounded whole, the composition 'The Lack of Permanence' accordingly becoming one of my all-time favourites in any genre. I further found the album a perfect companion to other subjects of great interest to me, most notably literature, always expanding its scope.
Almost painfully aware of the disproportion of the excellence of Remanence's music to the attention it receives both world-wide and, more specifically, in the midmost part of Regnvm Serbi (as I prefer to style it) where I live, I took pains to provide it with as much record promotion as circumstances would allow. Consequently, I availed myself of any opportunity that came my way to include Remanence in my radio programme Spiritual Profit, either dedicating the entire programme to the band on a number of occasions, accompanied by similarly oriented dark music, or selecting individual tracks by Remanence to accompany other featured artists when their turn came. It even proved suitable as background music in shows promoting artists quite different in music style (Doom and Black Metal, for instance), complementing the narrative sections between tracks beautifully.
After having won a copy of the "Lamkhyer" MCD from the band in 2002, I came to establish a good rapport with Brian McWilliams, which in itself enabled a rewarding exchange of views and beliefs, and, more recently, with John Phipps. As may have already come to your notice, their eagerly anticipated new album was released in early September and immediately proved worth its salt. Although it took several years to develop, be produced and assume its present guise, no part of this exquisite work appears dated or predictable, and is therefore strongly recommended to any one admirer of flawlessly produced and impeccably arranged instrumental music, firmly holding its own ground rather than simply following suit, and, therefore, richly deserving success. Delighted with "A Strange Constellation of Events", I went to great lengths to provide a succession of questions for an extensive interview, which in return saw Messrs McWilliams and Phipps going into greater detail to answer. A delightful experience it turned out to be, indeed. The first part of it runs thus...
Daniel: Your latest work, the long-awaited full-length CD album aptly entitled "A Strange Constellation of Events", has been available for purchase since the beginning of September. I should be very grateful if you cared to disclose your considered opinion about it in some detail. Firstly, are you pleased with the final result or have you any regrets? What tracks in particular do you consider the highlights of the album? Do you think it improves upon your previous work "Apparitions" in any respect? Also, what has the initial response from your fans and the press been like so far?
Brian: My feelings are somewhat mixed partly because it took so long to complete. We began working on it in earnest in '97 or '98 and it seemed as if we went through some definite phases in musical direction as we progressed. Because we really wanted to have an albums worth of material, we discarded some ideas and tried to piece together others that seemed to work together. Instead, I think we should have considered putting out a series of EP's, each capturing the particular musical phase we were in at the time. I'm glad we put out "Lamkhyer" when we did, because that certainly captured a certain phase and it's one of my favorite releases as a result.
Don't get me wrong, I think "Strange Constellation" contains some of our best work and makes a strong statement. For me, it captures the feeling of night and I'm especially fond of the field recordings that made it into the mix.
My favorite songs on the disk include:
the second half of 'Signal Hill' for its textures and chord shifts.
'Reflecting Pool (reprise)' for the blend of crickets and music.
'Lamkhyer' is probably the best overall song we've recorded and with the remix we were able to adjust a few things that were overlooked on the EP.
'A Reply Beyond Oblivion' because its such a noisy track and somewhat atypical of what we normally do. I love all the metallic scrapes and groans and the way it was mixed was completely different than anything else we've done. We usually set the EQ for a song and leave it at that. But on this, John drastically changed the EQ throughout the song and I think it sounds fantastic.
'First Light' - again, I like the field recordings. To me, the insects, frogs and various night-time sounds on the disk are just as important as the music.
Regrets... spending too much time on the album as mentioned above, and I'm a little unhappy with the mix for "Stress". I did that one myself and probably spent too much time on it. I lost objectivity. I just couldn't get the synth part to sound the way I heard it in my head and there are a few volume issues with some of the percussion.
Improvements on "Apparitions" - I wouldn't necessarily call them improvements, just a difference in approach. Since "Apparitions", there's been a definite progression in our ability to create our own sounds. We rely a lot more on programming and sampling now than we did in the past and the process of creating sounds has become almost as important and meaningful as writing the song. Also, when we write, we're much more inclined to record an idea from start to finish and then refine it - capturing the structure as part of a performance. In the past, we'd methodically construct our songs one section at a time, sometimes spending months on a single section.
The initial response has been very favorable though we are waiting for reviews to trickle in. We've gotten email from fans who have been really enthusiastic about this release.
John: This is a difficult question to answer. For me, listening to the album or considering it is more an act of memory than an act of perception, and my reactions are more to the experience of making the record than to the sounds that are contained within it. Brian and I both went through many transitions during that time, and not all of the experiences were pleasant. Of course without change, there is no growth - no deepening of one's ability to perceive what is around us, and within us. My feelings about the final document of this experience (the record itself ) are positive, and I feel that the album captures what it was meant to capture, insofar as we were able. I find the album to be more authentic, if you will, than the first record - less concerned with how people would react to it. I cannot help but think that is a good thing. I think we moved somewhat farther from the notion that a song was 'supposed' to sound a certain way, that there was a 'correct' result.
Daniel: I expect the new album to have generated a good deal of interest both prior to its being released and afterwards. Were there many inquiries and offers from record companies interested in releasing or, perhaps, co-releasing it? Were there any you thought especially tempting or worth mentioning? What requirements would you have expected to be met in order for you to agree on signing a contract? In addition, would you care to reveal what advantages and shortcomings there might be in releasing your projects through your very own record label, what difficulties such an enterprise usually entails, and what strain there lies in establishing a proper distribution network?
Brian: Actually no, there have been no offers from labels to release "Strange Constellation" or most of our previous works. After "Apparitions" we realised we could make as much money selling 1/10th the albums if we put out our own releases instead of going through a label. In the small niche genres such as ambient, there's also a bigger risk of small labels going out of business or not being able to meet their obligations. We know of artists who haven't received a penny for some of their best work and we have experienced difficulties ourselves working with labels.
It is difficult establishing a network to distribute your work. And that has been one of our biggest frustrations. We've approached some distributors who have been incredibly generous and helpful such as Atmoworks in the U.S. and Saiko Sounds in Hong Kong. Others have been dismissive or too overwhelmed with their current obligations to consider new artists. So, it's an ongoing balancing act and struggle trying to get your music out to the people who might enjoy hearing it.
John: The difficulties in releasing and distributing one's own music are probably quite similar to what one would imagine: the mundane logistics of paper and postage, the need to advocate on the record's behalf, the anticlimax of 'the day after'. On the positive side, we were able to proceed on the basis of pleasing ourselves rather than a corporate overseer, the ability to take the time we needed to be true to our own vision without regard to the supposed realities of the marketplace.
Daniel: You have been working in conjunction with AtmoWorks for quite some time now, and nearly all your releases are still available to order from their on-line shop. What has it been like dealing with James Johnson and Vir Unis? Are you satisfied with what attention your works have received from them? Also, are there any similar distribution channels you might consider approaching in order to make your albums even more widely available? For example, are Cold Spring Records from Great Britain still interested in Remanence?
John: Brian will be better able to address this question. My interactions with James have been pleasant, but brief.
Brian: Working with Atmoworks as a distribution channel has been great. James and Vir Unis have treated us very well. But, since they function as a distribution channel and not as a label we are still in the position of providing our own promotion. Cold Spring sells "Apparitions", "Lamkhyer" and hopefully soon "Strange Constellation". Projekt sells "Apparitions". CD Baby carries some of our titles as does Ping Things in Canada. So we have a few outlets, but we would welcome other distribution channels as well.
Daniel: Was it a conscious decision you made from the very outset to make all mPath Records titles available as handmade items only, strictly limited in number? Would it be the same for you if you submitted your prospective releases to a professional pressing plant to manufacture the discs, or do you feel they would then lack a certain quality, however intangible it might seem to others? Another point of interest on my part would be to enquire whether mPath Records was established to serve as the means of issuing your albums alone, or there might eventually appear projects by other performers as well, bearing that very same imprint?
Brian: Actually, the only releases limited in number have been the "...premonition" cassette and the Aperus "Hinterland" EP. The rest we plan to manufacture as long as there is interest. Additionally, we really wish we were able to prefessionally press all of our CD's. Sadly, most ambient music goes unnoticed and with our material, it's no exception. We typically recoup our investment on an album and if we're lucky, we might make a little extra. With such tight margins, pressing a CD costs almost as much as the printing so we've decided to release most of our work on CDR, though we do typically have our artwork professionally printed (all of the Remanence releases have been professionally printed).
I would really enjoy growing the label if possible. We keep hoping that each release will build on the last and that sales through our site will continue to grow. If it reaches a certain level, we'll defintely consider puting out other people's music. We're both very big fans of this kind of music so if we could do a little to help others out that would be great.
John: We knew from the beginning that the physical reality of the album was important to us. I remember Brian and I looking at the beautiful work done by, for example, Touch Records, early 4AD, and others. The objects themselves had a certain quality that enhanced the mystery and experience of the music. When we started, the handmade approach wasn't viable for CD's; and cassettes, as we all remember, involved significant compromises in sound that we could not have contented ourselves with - it is a happy accident that CD-R's became a reality when they did. It is not a great pleasure to duplicate disc after disc manually, but there is - as you say - intangible quality to an object made by the artist. I remember many years ago, having a conversation about autographs with a co-worker in a music store back home. He felt it was unseemly to revel in an autographed record. But my feeling is that there has been, from the time of Lascaux right up until the era of mass-production, a direct physical connection between the creator and the work. Mona Lisa: Leonardo painted that with his own hands; Starry Night: Van Gogh. Even the nameless Mesoamerican craftsman left his thumbprints in the ceremonial vase. While it would be more convenient to pass production off to a factory, I do derive a certain satisfaction as the finished album leaves my hand, knowing some of my DNA will linger there, and travel with the album to where ever it may find its way. As for releasing the work of other artists? The future is an unwritten book, isn't it? I am certainly not wise enough to see how it will unfold.
Daniel: A very interesting practice you seem to have taken to with both your projects on mPath Records is that of releasing complementary companion pieces shortly after full-length albums are out. The Aperus CD album was followed by the "Hinterland" multimode MCD, and the new Remanence album, "A Strange Constellation of Events", is to be accompanied by a sibling release entitled "Storm & Stress". Whence such an abundance of recorded material to be issued thus? Would you say those tracks did not quite suit the concept or the mood of the albums in some respect, and are therefore better off on their own?
John: I see no abundance there - rather ideas that were never fully born, songs heard in dreams that were forgotten upon waking. We really have not produced an abundance of material. I am pleased with the trend you noted: ideas sneaking out in various guises. Brian and I have discussed this at length. Perhaps it is the coward's way - it allows one to avoid condemning an idea to a static existence. Or allows one to avoid a kind of commitment. Ideas come so easily, flirtatious and engaging, but never want their varied potentialities to end. Similarly to people, I suppose, who fear death for much the same reason. Both submit more easily if you can trick them into believing that they have other lives waiting for them.
Brian: When I first started getting into music, I was really taken with 12" singles and EP's. Back in the day I was collecting a lot of new wave, art rock bands such as Japan, Big Country, Duran Duran, Clan of Xymox, Bill Nelson, David Sylvian, the Cure and others. The remixes and b-sides gave a completely different view into the creative process of the artist. With some bands, I hunted down everything I could possibly find. When you put it all together, it was like discovering a secret album that no-one else knew about. They almost always took more risks on the 12" and some of the extra tracks were better than those on the proper album. With ambient / experimental music you usually don't get a 12" or a single, but why not? There's no reason to accept the artificial limitations of the genre. To me it seems healthy and almost necessary to explore some of the material from a different angle.
With "Storm & Stress" John and I have some new material that we feel would be better suited for something else plus some alternate versions of songs that appear on "Strange Constellation". "Storm & Stress" will most likely focus on abstract, chaotic, drone-like material. We're both looking forward to this one. We're still working out some of the song ideas and other tracks are completely finished.
"Hinterland" was much the same. I had different versions of songs laying around after "Tumbleweed" and thought I could improve upon the production of the album. I'm really happy with both. The companion pieces seem like a great way to push a little further in a particular direction and expend more creative energy in a shorter amount of time.
Daniel: Perhaps the most important fact not in the context of the creative process, that caused further delays in the production of "A Strange Constellation of Events", must have been the regrettable theft of a good deal of your studio equipment. While obviously a major stumbling-block, could it possibly be viewed as an uncalled-for shaping factor, a minor emanation of chaos, something unbidden that, in its own inexplicable way, helped the album take its present form? Would you say that the material thus supplanted was in any manner superior or inferior to what we have today? I myself hardly think it possible that anyone would be able to recreate what has been destroyed from scratch and then make it sound identical.
Brian: Yeah, that's a difficult call to make. 'Signal Hill' was the biggest loss. We came back to that song about four times over the course of the album and were just getting ready to make final mixes when the break in occurred. We lost nearly all of it. We had backups and a cassette demo that were about seven years old - from when we first started working on it. So, most of what's there, we had to reconstruct. That was really heart breaking work. Our initial intent was to take cues from the cassette demo (a live improvisation) and try to preserve that spirit as much as possible. We did that once - listening to the tape over and over again, making notes, mapping out the structure of the song, improving and adding new things. Then, after the break in, we had to do it all over again... I don't think either one of us was sure it was going to make it onto the album after that. Somehow though, I think we managed to get the result we were looking for. It's probably not the same as we had before but the general feel of it sounds pretty good to us.
John: Losing a work in progress has positive and negative consequences. There is a temptation to second-guess, to perpetually chase the notion of a better, clearer idea. On the other hand, that which is most valuable will tend to be remembered, and the superficial will tend to be discarded. It was a blow, and of course creates a sense of being violated. That having been said, I don't believe that the album suffers greatly from the loss in the end.
Daniel: It would be quite an oversight if one did not notice that the tracks on "A Strange Constellation of Events" were considerably longer than those on "Apparitions", 'Signal Hill', 'Stress' and 'A Reply Beyond Oblivion' being the most conspicuous examples. Was this structural difference something you arrived at consciously and with great deliberation, or merely a side-effect of your creative impulses?
John: Earlier I said that I thought "Constellation" was in a way more authentic than "Apparitions". Much more of the album resulted from improvisation. The length of the songs is related, in that we took the time to allow ideas to develop in their own way. I'm reminded of something I read about poetry: "the urge to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it lessens when poetry arises freshly each day." When starting out, it is easy to feel that you must 'get to the point' quickly. But that can leave the experience feeling somewhat hollow. I look to Tarkovsky as a guide in this respect. Consider Stalker or The Sacrifice. Either story could be told in less than half an hour. But if they had been, I'm certain something vital would have been lost, perhaps it is simply that ideas need breathing room. The opposite side of that phenomenon is simply elaborating on an idea that has been explored past what it merits - I hope we have not strayed down that road.
Brian: A side effect. Our tendency over time has been to record as many ideas as possible when we work together. This tends to lead to a more organic unfolding of songs. Whereas before, we would start with a motif or a sound that we liked and try to build a very fixed idea around it. And I mean fixed - tempos were locked to a solid click - songs had very definite structures with verses and choruses. Now, we trust the human clock a lot more and let things unfold at any speed they wish. Large spaces and pauses are ok too. We try to avoid rules and limiting ideas as much as possible and explore wherever a song may want to go. In the past I think we were developing a vacubulary and learning how to use it, whereas now we're much more comfortable with the building blocks and conversely less interested in using them.
Daniel: The excellent track 'Lamkhyer', which you first introduced on the eponymous interim release from the year 2002, is now an integral part of the album "A Strange Constellation of Events". Was it originally intended for it, considering its being a slight departure from the Remanence style, encroaching, as it were, upon somewhat different ground, usually referred to as tribal ambient, maybe closer to Aperus?
John: If we are to speak of the song's most original intent, it was to delay Brian's inevitable departure from a weekend of music at my house when we lived far apart. It was the afternoon, and time to leave. We procrastinated by sitting down at the keyboards and doing what seemed (to me) like nothing at the time. Brian took it home and began working on it - adding the percussion. When next I heard it, it was clear that it deserved a home, and the next record evolved with this track as an integral part of its genome. The Lamhkyer EP arose later, as a chance to play with ideas - almost a vacation from 'work' on the album.
Brian: Yes, if you look at the "Lamkhyer" CD3, it says that the song was intended to appear on "Strange Constellation". At the time, we thought the album was just around the corner, but it took us another couple of years to finish it. And yes, 'Lamkhyer' definitely delves into tribal ambient territory. After "Apparitions", it seemed like we might struggle to break out of the orchestral mode we were in so we set our sites on something completely different to see what might happen.
Daniel: Would you care to make a comparison between the music of Remanence and Aperus? In what manner do you feel they are similar and how, again, do they differ from each other? Do you ever find it difficult to separate your ideas as fitting one project rather than the other? Also, was the composition entitled 'Echo Canyon III' on "A Strange Constellation of Events" meant to serve as a formal point of contact between them?
John: Obviously, Aperus is Brian's mindscape - a place for his imagination to slip the bounds imposed by collaboration. A purer form, in a way - more elemental than the compound mixture of the two of us. It was a pleasure watching the album take shape, and I think he did a wonderful job. The two projects clearly cross-pollinated, and there are more points of contact than 'Echo Canyon', although they may not be as obvious.
Brian: I'd say that the music of Remanence is more cerebral / intellectual whereas Aperus is more focused on nature, spirit and the abstract. Since Remanence is a collaboration between John and I we often have to talk things through to find a meeting point that will satisfy us both musically and intellectually. With Aperus, I feel much freer to delve into the realms that interest me personally. And, it gives me a chance to work more with my own photography, which is another vehicle of expression I truly enjoy.
Before John and I started working together, I had already accumulated a number of song ideas, many of them ended up on the "Apparitions" CD. But as we progressed (with "Lamkhyer" and "Strange Constellation"), we began cowriting most of the Remanence tracks together. This gave me more space to develop my own ideas without having to compromise. So, it seemed natural for me to develop a seperate identity and outlet for these recordings and thus Aperus was born. I think this new arrangment has been beneficial to both of us. I feel much happier having control over certain ideas (for Aperus) and it's more enjoyable for John and I to approach Remanence as a writing partnership.
Echo Canyon was a track I was considering donating to the pool of Remanence material, and it was one that John had already contributed guitar and keyboard ideas to. I started to wonder what would happen if I mixed the song the way I wanted it to sound and then the way John and I would mix it together. Both versions sounded interesting so we decided to use them both for different projects.
Daniel: How do you go about sampling natural sound sources? I expect the entire process is not at all without difficulties; it has been said, for instance, that the wind is notoriously elusive and requiring much effort and skill to capture on tape. Do your experiences in field recordings confirm this claim? What sort of sounds exactly do you seek in nature: that of the atmospheric disturbances, of the animal kingdom, or some other? Perhaps you would care to mention some names as influences who, in your opinion, managed to bring it off in the past? Say, Chris Watson (formerly of Cabaret Voltaire and Hafler Trio), for example?
Brian: I'm glad you asked this question since sampling natural sounds is a topic near and dear to my heart (and John's too I'm sure). Yes, it's easy to underestimate how difficult it is to record audio in the field. Just standing still is a major challenge! Any movement you make is an audio event you'll probably have to edit out at a later point. Not only are there technical issues to contend with but there are other things completely outside of your control such as weather conditions (we never record on a windy day or in high humidity - we've destroyed expensive mics trying to record rain before), migratory patterns of animals, and definitely not least - the encroachment of man on the environment. Man-made noise probably accounts for most of the difficulties we've experienced, whether it be cars, planes, or hikers. Most people are not aware of the amount of noise pollution we add to the environment. Our brains filter most of it out, but when you turn on a mic and listen through headphones, it's astonishing how much noise is actually there.
With some of the songs on "Strange Constellation", we wanted to capture as accurately as possible sounds from the natural world. John and I made many late night trips into the woods (when there's the least man-made noise) with a pair of microphones, stands, a mini disc recorder and headphones. We would set up wherever we found insteresting sounds (insects, frogs, birds, water, etc.) and record as much as possible. Additionally, we've both made it a habit of taking our recorders with us wherever we travel. John's brought back recordings from as far away as South America and I've recorded material from the Southwest including the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
I'd say that the artists I admire most who use and manipulate field recordings are Alio Die and Robert Rich. Alio Die seems to make it a complete ritual. It sounds as if he sets up a "scene", manipulates objects in the environment in a deliberate way, records the result and builds loops from them. Brilliant work. And with Robert Rich, the production value he brings to his work and recordings is masterful. I've heard some of Loren Nerell's work too and am quite impressed with it. A couple years back, he released an album built entirely from field recordings he made while traveling in Indonesia. His album Taksu is definitely worth checking out too - deep night time recordings from the same area blended with dark atmospherics.
John: Gathering sounds has been one of the great pleasures of this album, it takes one back to childhood, and the joy of searching for particularly appealing rocks, or unidentifiable bits of technology that one might discover along the roadside (or within the family stereo). I have great respect for the massive body of found sound material that has been used so ingeniously by, as you mentioned, Hafler Trio, as well as a host of others, and in a wide variety of genres. I think the way we use those sounds is substantially more conventional, less experimental, than many. But then again, not all experiments are particularly successful - there are Hafler Trio recordings I didn't listen to more than a few times.
One thing we have attempted to do from the outset is to create symbolic spaces that the listener can fill in with his own meaning. Something like the sound of crickets and other night creatures has no inherent literal significance, but retains the ability to evoke a strong response. That response is strong precisely because the listener can relate to the sound environment from their own experience of reality. Simply relating an experience or insight of our own would never resonate as directly or as powerfully.
We did indulge in a few instances of mangling a found sound to create something new. The voice of the abyss in 'It Gazes Also into You' was a recording I made of crickets one evening, slowed down drastically. In these cases, almost the opposite impulse is involved - rather than searching for a commonality with the listener in the shared experience of a sound everyone has heard, we deconstructed the familiar to reveal something else. I'm reminded of Jacob Bronowski, in the now-dated Ascent of Man, discussing the pivotal change in human outlook brought about by the act of breaking stone. In chipping a flint tool, splitting wood, or even splitting the atom, humans reveal a hidden sub-level of nature - an occult creation in the most literal sense. The process is seductive - a peeling away rather than a building up. Perhaps these two impulses are the yin and yang of this album. Perhaps I'm simply over-thinking it.
Daniel: I dare say travel is also very important to you as a source of inspiration. Your most recent works, the two albums by Aperus and Remanence, respectively, strongly suggest this. Are you yourselves well-travelled and, consequently, capable of transforming your personal experiences, memorable sights and impressions into finely-wrought, evocative ambient music, or simply endowed with an immense gift of visualizing and describing such scenes quite spontaneously? What country you had visited impressed you greatly, and in what respect? Are there any parts you would particularly like to visit, and why?
Brian: I'm not sure how much travel has figured into the music of Remanence. For me, it seems to inhabit the fringe world of science and concepts. Though the local environment has definitely played a role in shaping Strange Constellation. But still, travel wasn't necessary - nearly all the field recordings were made not far from where John and I live. I'm wondering if Lamkhyer may have struck you that way - suggestive of travel or location with its eastern themes. In that case, I think we accidentally ended up with a slightly eastern sound. Aperus is definitely focused on location. The environment is something I'm definitely trying to describe musically when working on solo material.
I've been to Egypt, Zimbabwe, South America, Botswana, Canada, and the American Southwest. I've enjoyed all of these places for different reasons. I'm quite enthralled with the Southwest, though I'd like to see Europe, Hawaii, Tibet, India, Japan, there's probably more if I thought about it... anywhere, I'd go anywhere if given the chance. I'm mainly interested in the aesthetic, history and feeling of a place and simply enjoy the experience of being there.
John: Most of my traveling has been done in Europe and the Americas. I enjoy it very much, but as much as people on both sides of the Atlantic might deny it, the US and Europe are close cousins. It's not the place for an American to go to be jarred by the shock of the Other. There are exceptions, of course - the former Yugoslavia, parts of Spain where East and West have met and blended in wonderful ways, and the Rom people. Of course the same is true of the Americas - the Garafuna of Belize, all the peoples of the Caribbean.
It's funny that I'm answering this question today - Brian is visiting, and we just returned from a lecture/demonstration of Uygur music - the Uygur people are Muslims from the West of China, and derive from ancient Turks. We've been talking about the richness that seems to spring up when different cultures come into contact. That having been said, there is no place I've traveled where I didn't become enamored with the culture, and imagine that I'd like to live there someday.
Daniel: On a more personal note, what might be the personality traits in people that you value greatly or dislike vehemently? Are there any faults in your own characters you are aware of, that you would be glad to be rid of if any way possible? Has any particular feature of yours contributed to or hindered your creativity in any clearly noticeable manner?
John: To this question I can only respond by quoting a phrase I read once, "there are only two mantras in life: yum and yuck. Mine is Yum." At least that's the direction I'm trying to grow. No one is born the way you meet them - their life teaches them who they are, and since you'll never experience the totality of their reality, it doesn't make much sense to pass judgment on a reality you'll never understand.
Daniel: Remanence is a name I tend to associate with breaking new ground within a music genre which, although loose of confines to a great extent and characterized by experimentation, still has its conventions. Is there any you would particularly like to flout? Also, would it be surprising for you at all if at some future point in time you introduced vocals into what is now distinctly instrumental music of Remanence? You might remember John Bergin's collaboration with Jarboe (formerly of The Swans), for instance: I myself found their joint work on the C17H19NO3 album 1692-2092 (Malignant Records 1998) quite good in this respect.
Brian: I think the music we make follows a certain structure over the course of an album and so there is definitely some musical conventions at play. But at the very least, if there's one thing I think we have been willing to do is to shift a little from album to album. There's the neo-classical leanings of Apparitions, the tribal ambience of Lamkhyer and then the field recordings on Strange Constellation. We're always interested in trying new things - that's probably what makes this fun for us.
In regards to working with vocals - I started out playing in an alternative band from '88 to '93 and during that time I wrote lyrics and sang background vocals. It was a blast writing structured songs for vocals. If either of us had a better voice I'd really enjoy writing for vocals again. We've started sneaking in vocal tones here and there on some of our recordings. You can hear some of it at the tail end of Lamkhyer (the song) as an example. This is something that we may have to explore further. I have some newer material that will incorporate more vocals, but not in the traditional sense - so time will tell where that leads.
John: If I had to pick one expectation of ambient music to flout, it would be the assumption of profundity. Most moments of human existence are not, in fact profound, or if they are, we are not awake to that profundity most of the time. Ambient music rarely, if ever, seems alive to humor or rambunctious joy - it seems to take itself so seriously that the genre is reduced to dealing with a rather small subset of human experience.
And as for Jarboe, she can be on one of our records any time she wants! Honestly the most significant barrier between vocals and me isn't the mechanics of recording or being able to find a vocalist, but rather the idea that vocals typically involve specific words. I can't imagine overcoming the constraint of grammar and the burden of specificity that words would involve. I know there are those who can use vocals like an instrument - Meredith Monk springs to mind as one of the masters of this art, as perhaps does Lisa Gerrard. So far, we have only dipped our toes into that pool. I can't tell how far it might progress.
Daniel: I personally consider A Strange Constellation of Events a perfect example of elevated, flawlessly produced ambient music, something that is inevitably bound to invite comparisons with stars of recognized magnitude, such as Lustmord, Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Jeff Greinke, Vidna Obmana, Alio Die or Amir Baghiri. Do you find this system of reference flattering or quite otherwise? In view of this, do you ever feel any burden of genrist restrictions or do you consider yourselves entirely immune to them?
Brian: Thank you very much - that is a very high compliment indeed... though I would be happy to point out its flaws! Um, yes, the comparisons do come and to some extent I find them flattering because I think so highly of most of these artists and consider them the elders. They have much to teach and we all learn from those who came before.
It becomes a burden however when the critics can't see past the influences and see your work as derivative. This does happen on occasion. The only thing I can do to protect myself mentally is put it all into perspective. We are specks of dust cartwheeling through the universe in a precarious cycle of birth of death. If someone else's opinion bugs me that much, I must have my nose too close to the page. It doesn't matter ultimately what someone thinks of the work. The only thing to consider is this - does it have meaning to the person creating it? Creativity to me is a ritualistic expression of the forces of life. I do it to process this experience of being here and being alive. It's quite an amazing ride we're on. Music and photography gives me an opportunity to express gratitude and share a sense of awe, wonder, and curiosity with others.
John: Thank you for your kind words about Constellation - I'm sincerely happy that it resonated with you, and honored by the each of the comparisons you mentioned (except I'll admit I'm unfamiliar with Amir Baghiri's work - I'll have to look into that oversight). Of all the artists you mentioned, my first experience was Lustmord's Heresy album. I remember the first time I heard it - I was stunned by the originality of the album (at least in my experience). I would have to agree that the genre has a tendency to go over the same ground from time to time - but I don't believe that it must do so. I think when there is a measure of commercial success, there will pressure to repeat oneself. So far, Brian and I haven't had that particular problem.
Daniel: Would it be accurate to describe Remanence as an apposite point of contact between the artists mentioned above and those with more pronounced Industrial leanings, such as, say, Schloss Tegal, Caul, Band of Pain, Raison d' tre or Inade, or do you deem any such categorization preposterous and ill-advised? Are you of the opinion that Remanence has, or might have, a certain affinity with other contemporary artists you might be aware of, whose music is similarly labelled as isolationist and introspective, examples being the Scandinavian acts Northaunt, Svartsinn and Kammarheit?
Brian: I think we started out with more industrial leanings with aspirations to follow in the footsteps of This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance, Clan of Xymox, and In the Nursery. You can hear that on Apparitions. Afterwards, we assimilated other musical interests like those you mentioned. But that's just a small sampling of the music we listen to. For example, I absolutely love Arvo Part's Te Deum and Peter Gabriel's Passion but no one ever accuses us of sounding like either of these artists. Judging an individual or group by their influences is looking at only one aspect of what drives a person to create. I would say there are many more important factors at play like emotion, experience and life itself. What happens in a person's life probably has more to do with the work they create than the art they enjoy.
John: Categories schmatagories! From my point of view, it's important to remember that categories are like the circles in a Venn diagram, and have an inherently arbitrary character. Those involved in scholarly literary or art criticism will often speak of the Marxist reading or the feminist reading or a particular work. While they tend to orient with a particular school of thought, most will acknowledge that all readings are valid - with each school tending to concentrate on a particular aspect or implication of the work. Categorizing music is probably similar - any music could fit in an infinite number of categories, each illuminating a different implication of the music, but each being ultimately incomplete. I don't generally find categorizing music to be a rewarding undertaking.
Daniel: The title of one new composition in particular, namely 'A Reply beyond Oblivion', with its hints at the shadow world, struck me as something that would by no means be out of place on Apparitions, your first album. It does, however, also suit the whole concept of communication, "from the man-made to the terrestrial and back", as you styled it, prevalent on the new album. Musically, it does more than slightly differ from the rest of the new material in being definitely noisier and more sinister. Personal interpretations will of course vary, but I should like to know what yours is.
Brian: I'm glad you like this track. It's one of my favorite Remanence tracks from any album. I like the grittiness of it too. This one was composed primarily from field recordings - from cicadas that we manipulated. We sampled and played the recordings way, way slower than they occurred and that accounts for a lot of what you hear. Then we EQ'd the song live from start to finish. Finally, we asked percussionist Carolyn Koebel to come in play bowed cymbals, gongs, and other metallic things. I love the blend. I think her contribution puts it over the top, especially near the end. All those textural, strange and wonderful sounds are her contribution.
Communication - yes... you could say that the act of the cicadas communicating caught our attention. We took their message, worked with it and processed it and now are sending it out to those brave souls willing to listen!
John: Brian and I wanted to explore a few very specific topics, some of them are obvious - the quietness of the night hours, and the way random events weave themselves together to form our realities. Others are less explicit - communication, for example. You'll notice that Morse code opens the album. And indeed, if events merge to form a life's history, there is necessarily a vector of communication between them, in the form of the individual. When we went to gather field recordings for the album, we aimed for the sounds of life forms communicating in their diverse dialects - hence the cicada. Obviously, we shaped the sound significantly, and it doesn't sound like an insect any more, but still it contains the same information. In that sense, the song can be seen as more of an exploration than a specific declaration. This is how classical Indian musicians will often describe performance of the various Ragas - as an exploration of the properties and spaces of the particular composition. We wanted the insect to be the axis of the song, with which we could interact with the other layers of sound - which is why this central sound persists throughout the piece, and dictates its direction. There wasn't a single declarative "meaning" of the piece.
Daniel: There are great many references of literary, philosophic and scientific nature to be found on the new album; some are quite apparent, some require more effort and extensive reading in order to be recognized. Let us now discuss their bearing on A Strange Constellation of Events. Firstly, in what manner does the pessimism, the Weltschmerz of Arthur Schopenhauer relate to your work? What aspects of his philosophy do you find the most intriguing and influential, and why? Is it because there seems to run a thread in his Weltanschauung derived from Buddhism, which I believe you might share? (Please correct me if I am mistaken in my inference .) Speaking of German classical philosophy, why did you choose to name one of the tracks, 'It Gazes Also into You' - referring to the abyss, I do believe - after an excerpt from Friedrich Nietzche which runs exactly thus?
Brian: I've never heard the words - "Weltschmerz" and "Weltanschauung". I'm curious about their meaning...
Honestly, I'm not familiar with Schopenhauer's writing - I like to blame John for the heady intellectualism that creeps into our work. And it's kind of fun to roll your eyes when saying that. Ok, ok, so he deserves a little credit. John always seems to be in the right place at the right time finding cool quotes and interesting stories. I thought the quote we used on the album was more a statement about the course of intention that runs through a person's life. So, I'm unaware of the pessimism you describe. Yes, Buddhism as a practice and life philosophy has deeply touched the course of my own life, though there too - I do not see pessimism.
I hope John shares a little about why he wanted to name that track 'It Gazes Also into You'. He didn't like my ideas. I wanted to call it 'A Reply Beyond Oblivion' and the noisier industrial track near the end 'If the Trees Could Speak'. John thought 'A Reply Beyond Oblivion' was too pretentious and didn't want it used for any track on the album, especially not for a song of his. But I knew that over time, he'd warm to it. I at least got to use the title for one of the songs on the album.
John: We didn't include the quote to argue the ideas of Schopenhauer in their broader context, but rather because it articulated an experience that we have both had - specifically the realization of how events direct our lives in various directions and how the sum of these vectors appears, in hindsight to have a logic or coherence that underlies it. Schopenhauer's opinion of music is also appealing, as it describes music as a "pure" form of expression, fundamentally different than the symbolic systems of visual or written expression. Who has not had the experience of at-oneness with a musician during a piece of music that speaks directly to your inner world - that sense that you understand, with absolute clarity, what the musician felt at the time of its creation? No art, of whatever greatness, has given me that clarity of communion with its creator to the same extent as music. Maybe it's different for other people, but it makes sense to me.
It integrates well with the broader contemplation that is represented by the album title. The Nietzsche reference is similar - it articulated an idea, or perhaps I should say a sensation very well. That sensation is one of not being alone - the sensation that you are at once the observed and observer, that in this existence, you are never in isolation - rather you are a fragment of the universe reflecting back on itself. It has been said that the best things in life cannot be told or taught but must be experienced - I would guess that some others have had that same sense.
Daniel: Another name of great literary merit featuring prominently on the album is that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous American poet and philosopher of the 19th century. Would you care to elaborate on the way your musical expression may be taken to serve to accommodate the views he held, an instance of which is to be found on the rear cover of the album in form of a quotation from his essays? Can any form of transcendentalism be said to represent the underlying doctrine prevalent in your personal outlook on life and the world, your work being its ultimate outlet?
Brian: John is definitely the more cultured member of this outfit. I mainly stick to a narrow regiment of Buddhist and Native American readings so hopefully John will answer this in more detail. I think the quote connects directly to the album with its reference to cycles and I saw a direct connection to Native American spirituality. There's a great quote by Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man, who described life as a circle and saw that symbol referenced in nature over and over again:
"You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves."
John: I'll admit a fondness for Emerson. Like all of us, he was a product of his own culture, and had a finite horizon - and still he was able to articulate insights on the human condition that retain their relevancy to this day. He was a transcendentalist as well as a pantheist, which makes a kind of sense - or doesn't, depending on your perspective. The quote we used was correlated with the album at a number of levels - the most obvious was the circular pattern of stars, and the universal nature of the circle or wheel as a piece of iconography. At another level the description of the unending, and ultimately unfathomable nature of existence was appealing to us, as the album represented a figurative gazing into indeterminably deep waters. I am very fond of Emerson, and it is probably no accident that the quote works so well with the album, because they spring from the same contemplation. The human mind, faced with the surprise of its own existence floating along in this very, very big universe.
Daniel: I gather you find science in all its various aspects quite fascinating. Perhaps it is your formal education that makes you more open to scientific concepts and theories, unorthodox though they may sometimes be? The booklet accompanying your first album Apparitions showed considerable interest in psychology, or, more accurately, parapsychology, depending largely on solid physics for scientific corroboration of experiments involved, those of Dr Raudive probably being the most intriguing. A Strange Constellation of Events depicts, among other things, an early attempt by the 1909 Nobel prize winner Guglielmo Marconi to establish communication at a transoceanic distance relying solely on Morse code; another phenomenon described there compelling listeners' attention would be the simultaneous illumination of fireflies, linking the less well-known or even uncanny aspects of zoology with the music of Remanence. I should say astronomy, too, is always present, although not explicitly or obtrusively. Would you please comment on this tendency to associate science with art?
John: Both science and art involve methods for exploring, dissecting, and analyzing the world around and within oneself, combined with methods of reporting one's findings for the reflection of others. They are the human species' senses, if you will. I would probably be leaving something important out if I neglected to mention a distinction that I personally draw between the act of art (or science) and the product or report that it generates. Often when we observe something like a sculpture, painting or composition, we are tempted to think, "There's some 'Art' over there." However, the art occurred when the piece was created - what you can see in the room is the report of the artistic process. Like playing a record - they are signals stored in a medium, not the musicians themselves. A good artist generally knows some science (for example the physics of light, the math underlying rhythm and tone, or the temperature for firing clay), and a good scientist becomes familiar with coaxing the muses. Like Yin and Yang, each has a seed of its opposite at its center - like right and left hands, each is the shadow of the other.
Brian: Well, John and I are big on concepts. He lives in the world of science and ideas and I'm intrigued by the world of symbols and metaphors. We find a lot of commonality between our two worlds and when we write music together it sometimes suggests a certain feeling or an obvious theme. Since we take all of this to extremes, we tend to want to marry the music to a concept or packaging idea. So, that's what we do, and I think we both get a lot out of the tug and pull and hashing out of ideas. And because part of working together is finding a common language that interests us both, we tend to dig in and learn about the theme we want to present. For Apparitions, we checked out a stack of books and journals about the paranormal. For Lamkhyer we were digging into the I Ching, Joseph Campbell lectures and Tibetan Buddhism. For Strange Constellation, we were pouring over Jung, scientific journals about synchronous communication (fireflies), and interesting historical accounts of communication ('Signal Hill').
Daniel: Is there anything in your personal environment you would call an influence on your music, without which, were you, say, to move and live elsewhere, it would clearly suffer? To what an extent do you perceive weather conditions to affect the way you compose material for Remanence, and do you think they can be entirely disregarded if not conducive to the creative process? What might your view be of what is termed Seasonal Affective Disorder? Do you think soothing ambient music could help remedy such a condition?
Brian: Not to sound too repetitive or simplistic, but nature and experience are the biggest influences. I make it a point to get out in the woods at least once a week, even in the winter. And I travel somewhere at least once a year to soak up something different. And usually with a camera and minidisc recorder just in case I find something interesting. Even if the location is the same, there's always something there that I find new. And, seeing a place change with the seasons is always amazing. Being out in nature, I find that any tension that I might be carrying seems to drop away after an hour or so.
I'm fortunate in that my house is located outside of the city overlooking a large creek. There's a lot of trees along the bank on either side, reeds grow in the creek, and there's always an assortment of birds that make this their home. It's winter here now, and I've been watching the water gradually freeze over. Snow clings to the branches and reeds and there's a group of ducks and a single swan huddled around a hole in the ice. They'll take turns swimming so it doesn't freeze over. This will be their source of water for the winter, so they need to work together to keep it available. How simple and focused their life has become to deal with this reality. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say here - I think that what nature presents to us are symbols and metaphors which can be applied to our own lives. These simple things that we see outside of ourselves can be a tool for own development and personal reflection.
If I had to live in a big city without access to nature, I would definitely not be as happy and the music would suffer. In regards to SAD - I'm not qualified to answer, but here's my opinion - I think we are definitely impacted by seasons. Most animals are slowing down and some are hibernating. Others are struggling to survive so their focus becomes more attuned to the immediate. Because it's cold and dark, we tend to stay inside during the winter, exercise less, travel less, isolate from people and eat more because our bodies tell us to stay warm. I don't know what the answer is for anyone else but for myself, I exercise, dress warm, and still get out in the woods. My routine doesn't change much from summer to winter, I just change the way I dress.
John: I don't know if I would point to a particular thing in the environment here that is helpful - instead I tend to notice one big thing that is unhelpful. That is the stunning lack of quiet. It's easy to simply become accustomed to the constant low-grade audio intrusion, but you notice it particularly if you go out to make field recordings. Where we live, it is very difficult to remove oneself from the noise of human activity. Yes, the winters suck, the lack of sun sucks - but if your home is supplied with the correct light and ample plant life, you can make it through to spring. The noise is unrelenting. To escape into real silence is a significant undertaking in our part of the world.