Jason Holstrom is perhaps best known as the guitarist and producer for United State of Electronica (U.S.E), the flamboyantly euphoric dance-pop group who looked to be on the verge of stardom in the mid ’00s, when they wowed big crowds in Japan. Alas, they never did break through like some were predicting and now they’re in the sixth year of a hiatus, with no seeming urgency to regroup. But Holstrom’s kept busy with the Tonight Sky project, which resulted in a twinkling electro-pop charmer of an album in 2013, and his latest endeavor, sunstrom sound. The first fruit of this new solo work, Vernal, drops tomorrow on Holstrom’s Bandcamp, and it’s fantastic. The eight tracks here possess a beauty that’s at once warm and chilly, and they induce a peacefulness that is ever more necessary during these hectic, stressful times. Even “springsleap,” which is a gorgeously muted, Gas-like techno track, contains an innate Zen calm that’s rare in the world of 4/4 clubland. I’m calling Vernal an instant classic and an outstanding portal into the new season. I interviewed Holstrom via email to find out how this phenomenal album came to be and what’s going on with his other musical projects.
What/who turned you on to ambient music and when did this discovery happen? Those who know you from Wonderful, U.S.E, and Thieves of Kailua may be surprised at the direction of sunstrom sound, although it does follow logically after your work with Tonight Sky.
Jason Holstrom: I started with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 2, then Brian Eno's Music for Airports. Both really blew my mind and changed the way I looked at the potential of sound. That was probably back in 2000 or so. Probably around 2007, I started to listen to a bunch of Kompakt stuff that led me to spend a lot of time with the Pop Ambient series, from there I spent a lot of time listening to Gas and the Field and Geotic to name just a few. I had been collecting gear over the years and finally set it all up in the studio in 2011 and started moving toward making this music.
Did becoming a father and perhaps not having the time to work in a band setting play a role in you creating this sort of introspective, home-studio music? Or were other factors involved?
This music was actually all completed before the little one came along. I think having her has been a great motivator, though, in having the drive to get the music out there and to continue to pursue music and art after becoming a parent. The music was recorded during the time that I was working on completing the Tonight Sky record. Making this music was a way to clear my head and just get lost in sound; not having to worry about lyrics or layers of vocals and plug-ins or being strapped to mouse-click mixing for years. This music was created and recorded live to 2 track in the studio with with a bunch of electronic hardware and no overdubs or post-mixing. It was hugely liberating to be away from the computer and to be free to create beds of sound and record them in the moment. It was quite solitary in creation, but expansive in a way that was very fresh and exciting.
What are your primary motivations for making music now?
I want to make music that is warm, transparent, and easy on the ears, music that can transport the listener somehow, music that's not about me. Music-making lately is mostly playing guitar and drums around the house with my kid. Sometimes she likes hanging in my studio and playing percussion and yelling into the mics. It's really exciting to be releasing the sunstrom sound music, though. It feels very fresh and new to me to make this abstract music in a less labored way. I just hope to keep developing and finding new things to do musically. I can't stop having something musical going on, so we'll see what's next.
Describe the main differences between and challenges of composing music for sunstrom sound versus for writing songs for rock and dance groups.
Creating the sunstrom sound music was an easy and natural musical experience. There were no other personalities in the room, no preconceptions, no expectations, no limits, and no pressure. While creating it, there was no agenda beyond getting lost in it and making it sound as cool as it could. The music is created outside of time in a way. Unlike a rock or dance group, the music is not necessarily linear, there are no standard changes or sections or limits of time. Because of this almost static state, it's easier to focus on tuning and capturing the singular mood in the moment, right now. Whereas with a band, it's all planning ahead for a future performance or recording session.
Do you view sunstrom sound as something that possesses healing properties? I find Vernal to be very calming and beautiful. Is this a kind of religious music, to you?
I'm so glad it affects you that way. That's something I really love about my favorite ambient-leaning music. Healing? Sure! I love how it sort of disappears into the background and becomes your soundtrack. It's like sonic weather. It is not trying to grab your attention, it calls you to pay attention to your own thoughts and being or situation and surroundings. I haven't thought of it as specifically religious, but there is something sacred about making room for the mind and spirit to be calmed and still. Hopefully this music can help do that.
What’s on the horizon for sunstrom sound? Will Vernal only be digitally released? Will you/can you play this music live? You hinted on your Soundcloud of more releases coming. What can you say about those?
Vernal will be available digitally via sunstrom.bandcamp.com on the spring equinox, Friday, 3/20/2015. It'll find its way to all digital outlets in the next few weeks. No physical release plans at this point, but I'd love to see it find its way to vinyl someday. I've been making ambient nature videos to support the music, as well. These can be seen at sunstromsound.com and there will be more to come. Vernal is part of a series, more to come on that in 2015. I hope to play this music live. The way it was created would be a challenge to reproduce live, but I'm working on some ways to try to pull it off.
What is the status of Wonderful and U.S.E? It’s been several years since we’ve seen them play out or heard new music by them.
Wonderful put out Wake Up to Dreamland in 2011 and played a bunch of gigs around the region. Wonderful continues a bi-yearly or so trip to the wilderness where we rent a house, bring all of our gear, and experiment and record a bunch of music for a long weekend. The last few trips have been quite successful and have produced a good batch of new music. [We have] no solid plans to release or play yet but we intend to keep the Wonderful dream alive. U.S.E remains alive in our hearts. We're all still close and friends but no plans of a reunion right away. If people haven't checked out 2009's LOVEWORLD, they should! Carly [Nicklaus] and Amanda [Okonek] from U.S.E are currently playing around town in an awesome super-girl-group BARDOT. Check them out.