An Extended Interview with the Sight Below
So what have you been up to since Glider?
I've been keeping quite busy, which is a good thing, 'cause otherwise I would just go insane, sitting around the house all day with nothing to do. After Glider was released, I spent most of 2009 on the road, performing all over North America and Europe (went to the EU four times just that year). Last year was Ghostly's 10-year anniversary, so the label organized lots of showcases around this. Some of the best ones were Berghain in Berlin, Sonar Festival in Barcelona (where Simon [Scott, of Slowdive] joined on guitar and vocals for the first time), and of course Decibel in Seattle. Earlier in the year, I did a U.S. tour with Lusine. Then I also played DEMF in Detroit, MUTEK 10 in Montreal, did some shows with Fennesz, and did a UK tour with Simon Scott and Svarte Greiner (who's playing in Seattle on May 26 at Triple Door). Afterward, I played more EU festivals, and more individual dates, etc. Other than this, I'm quite a recluse when I'm home in Seattle. I've been spending the past couple of months working on new projects, including new music under my birth name and a few collabs.
How did you get hooked up with Simon Scott, and what was working with him like? Did you collaborate in person somewhere, or just send tracks back and forth? What do you think he's added to your sound on this album?
Simon sent me a message on MySpace in 2007, after my Daydreaming album came out (when people used to use MySpace!). We corresponded online for a while and eventually began to write music together early in 2009. Simon has a lot of experience, even having worked with Brian Eno during his time with Slowdive. At the moment, he's studying electronic music and sound design in Cambridge, where he lives nowadays. And of course, I'm a huge, huge Slowdive fan (they provided a soundtrack for those lonely and miserable teen years), so for me it feels like coming full circle in a way. I would have never guessed in a million years I would be working with a member of a favorite band. Like, no way... it is all very strange. Like when you have somebody like Thom Yorke talking about your music, it's quite surreal. I'm just a regular guy, a big fan of music who until before the 2008 financial meltdown had a regular day job like everybody else. I'm still the same criminally shy person. I'm always thoughtful: This all an illusion, it will end any minute now, so better not get too comfortable!
Anyway, Simon and I never were in the studio together, which made everything a bit more complex than it needed to be. Sometimes explaining a simple thing can take a few e-mails rather than just showing the person sitting next to you in the room. Aside from that, it was pretty cool. We kept trading files back and forth online. I would record something, send to him, he would add more guitar parts, etc. Or he would send me a guitar idea, and I would develop a song based on that. Ultimately, we created almost 45 minutes of music together. There were lots of beat-driven tracks on the first draft of It All Falls Apart, including some tracks where Simon either sang or played the drums. It felt very much like a "band." Sam [Valenti IV, Ghostly International's label boss] and I sat down in Berlin during the summer and compiled the first draft. After I got back from touring in the summer, I started to write more music, and it was leaning heavily toward the ambient side, so I removed a lot of the tracks with drums or beats, just 'cause I wanted an album that flowed from start to finish. Maybe we'll release those at some point or they'll become part of a third studio album. Who knows... I'm very much a perfectionist when it comes to my output, and I don't release everything I do. I view it more as what fits together well, even if it means cutting out some great tracks.
Obviously, you have much love for the mopey music of Factory and 4AD and the like—beyond working with Scott, one could also see that in, for instance, the mix you recently curated for Self-Titled magazine. But why cover Joy Division, and why "New Dawn Fades"? What can you and Jesy Fortino [Tiny Vipers] do for the song that Moby can't? And how did working with Jesy come about?
I'm a sucker for Factory. In fact, last year [James] Grindle and I did a few "Hacienda" tribute Pongtastic nights at the Clubhouse (dunno if you remember those). And of course 4AD, what can I say about it? Cocteau Twins, Dif Juz, This Mortal Coil were all so inspirational and influential. Why cover Joy Division? Well, a few things to know: (1) I absolutely hate the Moby version of "New Dawn Fades" and the adaptation on the Heat soundtrack. They are both horrible and far cries from the original's spirit. (2) I've known Jesy for a few years (I met her at the Biosphere show during Decibel 2007). She's very into all the left-field electronic music (Touch, Raster-Noton, Miasmah, Room40, Kranky, Type, etc.). I'm a big fan of her music (that Life on Earth album is just amazing) and vice versa, so we had talked for the longest time about doing something together at some point. But of course she also travels a lot and has a very hectic schedule, so it took a while to make it happen. At one point, we were hanging out at a coffee shop and "New Dawn Fades" was playing in the background. She mentioned how it was her favorite Joy Division track, so I said, hey, maybe we should do a version. So we decided to do it, although it wasn't intended for the Sight Below album—we were just doing the track for the fun of it. We had to do tons of changes, too, 'cause you can't really have a woman (even as gifted as Jesy) sing THAT low. So we had to raise the pitch a notch and adapt it to her vocal range. Ultimately, I asked her to sing it as if it was one of her own, to just make it as personal as possible.
I sent it over to Sam and he REALLY liked it, so we decided to include it on the new album. It was tricky—Simon thought it stood out quite a lot because of the vocals, and I didn't want to do another vocal track and make the album too long either (I don't like to make long albums at all). So after several mixes and trial and error, we got to the version that everybody was happy with and that ended up on the album. I'm really happy with how it turned out; I think Jesy's vocals are haunting while maintaining the spirit and feeling of Ian [Curtis]'s version. I've been told that a lot of people/critics, etc. have liked the version a lot. And ironically, I read a few weeks ago that Thom Yorke was covering a JD track—can't help but wonder if he's even heard the version Jesy and I did.
It's funny too, 'cause ever since we did this track, I've been working with Jesy on a side project and done almost 45 minutes of music together. Tomorrow I'm actually tracking drums, but that's another story... When it rains it pours, or so they say.
Beyond the collaborations, what else if anything has changed in your recording process/setup for this album?
For the first album [Glider], I only used a guitar with loop pedals, delays, and reverbs. I recorded everything live, too. This turned out to be a huge problem, 'cause when it came time to ask people for remixes, I didn't have any "stems" to send out—just a stereo guitar track. For the new album, I used everything at my disposal. Yes, there are tons of guitar and multilayer parts, but I also used samplers, synths, horns, voices, etc. Of course, these are all elements that form part of a wall of sound, so it's hard to distinguish them as such, but they are there. I also spent a lot more time with this record; as I mentioned earlier, I cut out lots of songs, otherwise I would have ended up with a double LP.
Can you quickly walk us through your studio/recording setup? Any secret weapons in there?
At the moment, I have a very austere setup at home: a 16 channel analog mixing board that's literally falling apart (I think it's from like 1985); a beat-up, eight-input sound card; and multiple computers, all of which I would gladly trade for one that actually worked fine all the time, he-he. Secret weapon for me: my monitors. I swear by the ones I use. They were pretty steep price-wise, but they are the best piece of gear I have. I saw a documentary about Brian Eno on BBC, and it turns out he was using the same kind—I don't know if it matters, but at least I felt like I finally had ONE piece of gear that actually is professional and stuff.
Other than that, I have a really good condenser mic, contact mics, one decent guitar (which rarely leaves my studio), a nice bass, and a few old delays and reverbs and effect stomp-boxes. I'm pretty sure a lot of the music's sound has to do with using such shitty or broken gear and trying to make lemonade out of lemons in a way. Maybe one day I'll be able to afford at least a decent laptop... I remember asking my very good friend Vance Galloway [Decibel's tech guru and one of North America's preeminent sound engineers, at least according to Dave Segal] to come by and check my laptop 'cause it kept making this stupid fart noise as I was tweaking my custom-made software looper settings while running a guitar audio input live (I play everything I do live when I perform, so I use tons of custom-made loopers and patches on Ableton to run audio inputs through, and it's pretty memory/ram intensive). He described my patches and setup as trying to "run a jet engine on a 1970s Pinto," so go figure!
So you're going out on the road as the Sight Below, but this show at the Triple Door [May 12] is something else—can you tell me about that?
Yeah, Sean Horton [Decibel's founding director and curator] listed it as TSB, which is probably a good thing, 'cause people know the name better anyway. Truth is, I'm debuting a performance as Rafael Anton Irisarri as a trio comprising Kelly Wyse (who performed piano on my Reverie mini-LP out earlier this month on the Thrill Jockey–distributed label Immune) on the piano and Phil Petrocelli (tour drummer for Jesu) on drums and percussion. The music is all original, new material, heavily influenced by David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti, Bohren & Der Club of Gore, and Arvo Pärt. A friend heard the rehearsal and described it as if Amon Düül II had recorded Phallus Dei while taking loads of Vicodin.
Do you think the Sight Below is received better (or just differently) abroad in Europe than here in Seattle?
Yes, by far, but I think it has nothing to do with the kind of music I'm making and more to do with the fact that in Seattle, TSB is just a local act, so it's never going to be perceived in the same way as other acts coming from out of town. It's funny in a way. Last year, for example, I was working as I usually do with Decibel (behind the scenes, trying to avoid the spotlight as much as possible). I remember a few of the international acts that knew about the Sight Below coming by and telling me how much they enjoyed Glider or that they'd heard me play at Sonar or Mutek or something, all while I'm either sound-checking them or helping set up their gear or just playing driver and taking them to the airport or hotel—you know, getting my hands dirty and stuff. And that's probably what I enjoy the most.
Here in Seattle or otherwise, do you think the Sight Below dovetails more with instrumental rock stuff than with "electronic" stuff?
It's tough to say, mostly 'cause I feel that the "sound" of the Sight Below is more aligned in spirit to acts like Windy & Carl, the Durrutti Column (I always joke about how, in Ghostly, I'm to Matthew Dear what Vini Reilly was to New Order on Factory), and other space rock/shoegaze or instrumental rock than electronic music. But then again, my audience is predominantly in the electronic-music circles, the same people who listens to Fennesz, Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, etc. And that's cool too, 'cause I listen to those artists as well sometimes. I enjoy a lot of the dub techno, especially all the Basic Channel–related, Hard Wax stuff. And it's all good to me—I can easily adapt and play a cathedral (which I love to do) or make up a dub-infused set and play at a club like Berghain. I just don't see a problem with it; I enjoy both equally. Sometimes I may lean a bit more on one end of the spectrum than the other, but hey, that's the duality I enjoy the most about my own personality.
Speaking of your own personality, when the Sight Below first started, you were trying to keep the project somewhat anonymous (which lasted for about a minute after Dave Segal's profile of you for The Stranger). What was the motivation behind that?
Originally, I didn't want people to have a preconception of what TSB was all about. Like, if you listen to the music I've released [under my own name] on Miasmah or Immune, it's quite different from TSB. Sam [Valenti IV] used to tell me, TSB is like a different side of my persona, and I think he was right. And of course that didn't last too long, 'cause I started doing too many shows (like right after Decibel '08 I did a 20-date EU tour), getting press write-ups, etc., and people wanted to know who's the person making the music. I guess we live in a very "starcentric" society where one has to have some kind of story to sell the "package," tell a story, etc.... To me, it's all irrelevant. Why can't the music be what it is without people overanalyzing? I remember I never knew what a lot of bands I used to love as a teen looked like. Damn you, internet, for that! Ironically, being "present as a personality" has apparently been a good thing for the Sight Below, so what do I know?