In late 2010 12k released “Monocoastal”, an album by Portland, Oregon-based musician and multimedia artist Marcus Fischer. The CD edition sold out within weeks, and 2011 brought well-received collaborations with Devin Underwood and 12k boss Taylor Deupree, along with a handful of successful live performances, confirming Fischer’s reputation as one of the most innovative and talented artists to emerge on the ambient and experimental music scene for some time. With the release of a new album called “Collected Dust” arriving on Tench at the end of the month, we thought it was about time we asked the man some questions.
How did you first get involved in making music?
I started making music when I was about 12 or 13, although I didn’t think of it as music at the time. My father always had a lot of different tape recorders laying around and I would use them for recording things off of the television and from his records. I started combining them by playing a few back at the same time using their built in speakers and recording them on another tape recorder. The combinations were really strange – like an instrumental classical record on top of a record of Halloween sound effects on top of slowed down dialogue from an episode of “I Love Lucy”. It was all pretty creepy. I actually found a few of those old mixes when I was in college and it kind of freaked me out.
Around high school was when I first really got involved with actual music. I started playing in bands where we all would switch instruments so I quickly picked up some basic bass, drums and guitar skills. It was making mostly lo-fi indie pop and noise music at that time. While I was still in high school, I started a cassette label which soon grew into releasing vinyl. It was a really great learning experience and made me part of a larger community of DIY artists/musicians. That pretty much sparked my move to Olympia, Washington. In the mid-90’s, Olympia was pretty much the epicentre of DIY music culture in the US.
At that time I found myself mostly playing drums in a variety of projects (some more serious than others) and performing and recording with some really amazing people. After the most active band that I was in decided to call it quits, I started doing a lot more home recording again. Once my wife and I moved to Portland around 2000, I had pretty much quit playing in bands and started to focus my musical efforts towards solo experimental electronics. It seems like everything has come full circle and here I am again playing with cassette recorders again.
What do you think were the most significant influences on your development as a musician?
By far the most significant influence on my development as a musician has to be the act of improvising with other musicians. Nothing else I have ever done has taught me more about music. It forces you to learn your instrument in a way that would be impossible to do alone. It teaches you take chances. It teaches you to embrace mistakes and use them to your advantage. Most importantly, it teaches you to listen.
In our review of “Collected Dust” we noted some of the effects produced by your use of chance. Can you tell us more about the role of chance in your music making process? Do you have a particular method for generating chance events, or is it different for each piece?
It is usually different depending on the piece because I try to not overuse the same processes. I have used all kinds of methods – everything from low-tech methods like placing contact microphones on the exposed guts of toy pianos during hail storms, to higher-tech things like a homemade granular delay plugin that would randomly reorder the sounds run through it within a certain set of parameters.
I view using chance elements in performing and composing the music that I make on my own as a kind of invisible partner. Chance is kind of like a one-sided improvisation – like improvising with someone that is a very bad listener. Best of all, it forces you to give up control, which I feel is very important for my creative process.
The use of chance within a piece of music is often seen as a way of downplaying the conscious intentions of the artist, even though the framework within which this occurs can be highly constructed. Do you see chance as a way of opening up the creative process to other factors outside of yourself, or is it a means of expressing your own thoughts and intentions?
I would have to say that for me, it is a combination of both. I do use it as a compositional tool to see what can happen but I have also chosen those elements carefully for personal or aesthetic reasons. It is a tricky thing to open yourself up to chance. Sometimes it works beautifully and other times it can be tragic. As an artist, if you are working on a recorded piece, you have the final cut so to speak of whatever it is you are creating. If you choose to incorporate chance elements, it is within your ability to edit out the chance elements that have less than desirable results. I have certainly done this and I think most artists would. Chance elements in a live setting is a whole different thing.
Are there any ‘safety buffers’ or approaches that you have developed to help you work with chance in a live environment?
Not really… most of my solo live improvisations are based around creating a system for improvising which I try and change a bit for each performance. Sometimes it is focused on a certain network of pedals which I feed my signals through or other times it is all about a specific palette of sounds and textures that I have chosen to work with. Most of the preparation that I do for a live performance is just developing a system and figuring out how to navigate within that system. I don’t usually spend much time figuring out an escape plan if it fails. It has been quite a while since I have performed with the use of a laptop, but back then I typically had something like a delay/looping pedal on hand in the event that my laptop would crash. I think it kind of worked like a lucky charm because It never happened to me. Now that I’ve said that, I know that If I ever go back to using a laptop live, I will certainly be doomed.
Are there any examples in your music of moments that took you wholly by surprise, that occurred completely outside of the framework you had set for the piece?
Yes. Going back to the hail falling on toy pianos – that was an idea that I had where I imagined what it would be like but the actual recordings amazed me. I’m not sure what I thought at the time… maybe that the hail would just randomly strike the tines and there would be this beautiful music box-like melody that would emerge. But what really happened is that I got many more pieces of hail striking on the soundboard of the pianos and very little on the actual tines. The results are these strange rhythmic patterns punctuated by plinks and plunks of the tines which I found to be so much deeper and fascinating than what I had imagined.
When I listen to your music I am always struck by a strong sense of place. Is there a particular place, either specific or ideal, that you feel your music is grounded in? If so, is this intentional or did it emerge of its own accord?
I’m so happy that you can feel that from the music.
There isn’t always a specific place but there are a few tracks on “Monocoastal” that most certainly are. Personal geography and memories have always been the place where the music that I create comes from. I couldn’t tell you why that is the case but it has just always been that way. There is something so complete to me about a treasured place. Everything is there in your memory… maybe you couldn’t describe it if you had to, but you just know the feeling you get. I think that is what I look for in a source of inspiration.
Since I do find so much inspiration in places, I feel fortunate that I have been involved in so many projects where a sense of place is front and centre. “Monocoastal” is one example, but two better examples have to be “In a Place of Such Graceful Shapes” with Taylor Deupree and the “Rivers Home” series that Kate Carr put together on Flaming Pines.
My Willamette River disc for “Rivers Home” has to be my most literal interpretation of a place. Kate’s idea for the project was for the artists that she selected to create a track based on a river that means something to them. I picked the river that bisects the city of Portland, the Willamette river. The track moves along the course of the river from its source, past towns, cities and industry until it joins another larger river which eventually leads to the Pacific Ocean.
In the case of my collaboration with Taylor, I don’t think that we could have ever created that album while being on two different coasts. The place and the environment became the entire project. We have been talking a little about our next collaboration. I have an idea in mind which involves recording in a very specific spot in a small town outside of Portland. We just have to make sure that Taylor can come out here when the weather is decent, which leaves a very narrow window.
You’re also involved in a variety of other art forms, including photography, letraset printmaking and product design. Do you feel there are any correspondences between your different activities?
Yes, most certainly. Maybe not in the case of the letraset work, but I think that one discipline informs another. For me the threads of photography/video and music are always strongly intertwined. I am a very visual thinker and it feels quite natural to combine visual mediums with sound. I also have a hard time focusing on just one project at a time… I’m sure that I would be much more productive if I could just work on music, or just work on art… but unfortunately I can’t.
Or maybe it is fortunate that I can’t… who knows?
Finally, what are some of your thoughts and plans for the coming year? What are you looking forward to in 2012?
2012 is looking pretty busy already. At the end of this month Tench will be releasing “Collected Dust” which is a collection of tracks originally recorded for my thing-a-day blog project which I revisited and reworked late last year.
There are also a lot of collaborations in the works. I am hoping to wrap up a collaborative 12″ with Ted Laderas (the Oo-Ray) in the next few weeks. It will be a very limited pressing on a small Portland label called Optic Echo. I am about to start an audio/visual collaboration with Rafael Anton Irisarri. I will be dealing primarily with the visual component. It is much more technical than anything I’ve ever done before but it sounds like it will be very cool when it is finished. I am hoping to get a bit deeper into a collaboration with Simon Scott this year. When he came out here in the Fall we had the chance to do some recording one morning in my studio, which was fantastic. It was wonderful to meet him in person and to do some shows with him in Portland and in Boston. We’ve also been trading some sound files over email, so between those two sources we should have something.
Unrecognizable Now, My duo with Matt Jones, should have a new EP out soon called Two Rooms. It is all based around a recording we made last year. We made the recording at a practice space we have below an office building in downtown Portland. We performed in one room while recording in another. The microphones were placed at each end of a long concrete hallway, capturing the natural reverb of the environment. It is a dense but spacious piece in four movements. It will be released digitally on Kesh and self-released in a limited CD run in the next month or so.
In April, Taylor Deupree and I have a one-off show in Austin, Texas. After the series of shows we played together around the release of “In a Place of Such Graceful Shapes” we really felt we had hit our stride by the last show in Boston. It will be great to get another chance to perform together. Hopefully we get more invitations to play as a duo in the future. At some point this year I will also begin work on my next full length for 12k which is an exciting but intimidating prospect.
I am hoping for another musically productive year this year and so far it looks like it should be. I feel very fortunate to have found an audience for my music and I hope that more opportunities continue to present themselves.
As indeed do we! Thank you for your time Marcus, and all the best for 2012!