High on the Down Low
The Sight Below's Subliminal Techno Seduction
One of the Sight Below's favorite books as a teen was Albert Camus' existential classic The Stranger. And that's how he prefers to remain to the public—a shadowy figure who allows his music to hog the spotlight. "Lonely is the new dance party," reads the Sight Below's MySpace headline, summarizing his aesthetic.
The cult of personality is anathema to this Seattle-based producer. (True to his word, he refuses to let me publish his real name for this feature.) So low is the Sight Below's profile that many of his fellow local electronic-music heads expressed surprise upon discovering he made his own tracks. "I always thought of composing music as something quite personal," he says via e-mail from a Frankfurt, Germany, airport. He's just concluded a six-week European tour, which had its ups and downs: Stockholm and Nantes were "unbelievable," but he was booed off the stage by a middle-aged crowd at a jazz fest in Italy.
Nevertheless, the Sight Below's set at this year's Decibel Festival was a highlight for many attendees. His mesmerizingly muffled 4/4 kick drums pumped like an excited hippo's heart beneath gaseous synth tones and spectral guitar spray, while his voluminous bass frequencies seemed to threaten the integrity of the Baltic Room's sound system. To those on the Sight Below's rarefied wavelength, the result was a steady-state, subdued ecstasy similar to that induced by Kompakt Records artists like Gas and the Field.
The Sight Below's debut album, Glider (out November 11 on the respected Michigan label Ghostly International), meticulously re-creates that live experience while also exploring his more ambient proclivities. The Sight Below's deft aptitude on guitar (typically stroked ever so lightly with a viola bow or plectrum) and keyboards glimmers brilliantly on the disc's nine cuts, evoking masters of subtle sonic bliss like My Bloody Valentine, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, and Fennesz.
A self-taught musician, the Sight Below accrued a few college credits in music composition, theory, and sound design, and toiled a few years in Miami recording studios, where, he recounts, he spent "countless hours mixing crappy pop and urban music. I attended a Jesuit school for several years as well, so perhaps all that 'liberation theology' has subconsciously been an influence when it comes to my approach to music composition, etc."
The Sight Below's music conjures thoughts of cold climes, dew, somber walks through frost-covered forests, isolation, ornate cathedrals, and thrumming wombs. He asserts that the Pacific Northwest's "landscape, weather, and overall aesthetic" have profoundly influenced his work.
Glider arose out of the Sight Below's reignited love affair with the guitar, both playing it and listening to music heavily relying on that instrument. As a 14-year-old, he had his mind blown by MBV's "Only Shallow," but his love of minimal-techno savants like Basic Channel, Sleeparchive, and Pan Sonic couldn't be denied, so he "tried to create a marriage of the two." Many people who've heard Glider reference Gas (German producer/Kompakt Records cofounder Wolfgang Voigt), a comparison the Sight Below readily accepts, calling his music "perfect."
The main difference between Gas and the Sight Below, however, is the latter's six-string affection. "I've been told Wolfgang Voigt despises guitar music, and I'm the opposite," he says. "I'm a guitar player at heart and swear by the bulk of Creation Records' catalog. Even though the way I play the guitar doesn't sound much like one—I use it more as a sound generating device, like in the same way you would use a synthesizer or sampler, to create new sounds. That introverted style of playing—'shoegaze'—is there in spirit."
For Glider and part of No Place for Us [a free digital-only three-track EP on Ghostly], the Sight Below "recorded in one take whatever the emotion was at the time. Most of the songs on Glider were composed during the winter. I was all by myself for two weeks, having been recently laid off from my day job, too—perfect setting for creating some music!"
This scenario echoes the Camus quote printed on Glider's inner sleeve: "In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
"I barely had any human contact or even left my house during that period," he recalls. "It was emotionally intense. I wanted to capture that detached feel. Complete isolation was a total creative binge. I set up a system in my studio I refer to as a 'generator.' It consists of a series of effect units, loop pedals, and a small mixer chained together. I would play for a few hours through this system, recording pretty much anything I did. After I recorded everything and selected portions I liked, I would add a pulsing beat to it, but other times (especially lately) I've been using the pulse to play guitar on top of it, too. I like to experiment with different approaches and definitely try not to repeat myself in a way."
The Sight Below views his music as a genuine reflection of his own personality and his "relation to the world that surrounds me. I've tried to make dance music many times, but felt it didn't come natural to me and hence sounded forced. I am quite an introverted, closed person in many ways and prefer to be out of the spotlight."
For this very reason, the Sight Below's music feels somewhat inaccessible. It has a smeared, Vaseline-lensed quality that suggests he finds subtlety innately superior to more obvious crowd-pleasing sounds, that allusion, minor keys, and muted shades trump major keys, bright tones, and slamming beats. He vehemently disagrees.
"I don't view music in [terms of] superior versus inferior, nor I am an elitist. I enjoy a lot of different types of music, including pop music. I am a sucker for the Smiths, David Sylvian, the Chameleons, Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Nick Cave, Pavement, Tindersticks, etc. I love old Scott Walker records, Johnny Cash, and Nick Drake. To me, it is all pop music with traditional song structures—well, in some cases not that traditional, but still pop compared to Oval, Alva Noto, or Fennesz."
Point taken. Let's conclude with one of the hoariest questions in the music journalist's repertoire: Is the Sight Below's project name a hint to his aesthetics, suggesting the necessity to look beneath surfaces?
"Perhaps. It could be like looking beneath, and you may find beauty and melody—listen a few times and uncover different elements. Kind of like the way an old film works: I enjoy that old-movie quality [of] graininess that forces the listener to focus hard to uncover different details and small sounds that are hidden on first listen, but are there to be found and enjoyed with repeated listening.
"But it could also have so many different connotations; for instance, viewing a desolate landscape that is the remains of what could have been, that wasn't, and that may never be. The Portuguese refer to this as saudade, and it serves as the basis for fado. I kind of like thinking of it as 'hopeful gloom,' like a brooding sound for drowning in lightless water."
One must imagine Camus, were he alive, would be happy with the Sight Below.