Hi Rafael, it’s a pleasure to chat with you. Thanks for agreeing to this interview! How are you? How’s everything going? What have you been up to recently?
Hi James, thanks for taking the time, really nice of you! I’m doing well thank you, just keeping busy in the studio mastering records, whilst prepping for the upcoming Australian tour.
To start things off, please may you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your music?
I got into music heavily when I was around 9 years old. I was a pretty awkward kid, kind of a loner, frail, and bullied boy. Music became my way of coping with the fact that I didn’t seem to belong anywhere. I had this feeling of “everything I’ve been told is wrong” – so I created my own little world, with music playing a central role. When I was about 10, I saw the most wonderful thing on the telly – Guns N’ Roses Live at The Ritz. It was incredible to see this as a child: afterwards all I wanted to do was curse like a sailor and drink Jack.
By the time I turned into a teen, I had taught myself how to play bass and guitar and was in different bands – punk, reggae, etc and hanging with older kids, getting into all sorts of trouble. I lived in the middle of nowhere, so finding music in the 90’s was rather tough – either knowing someone who was “in the know” and had mail order catalogs or you knew someone who could make a mixtape for you. That was pretty much all the music discovery I had pre-internet. Luckily for me, a friend had those old 4AD & Creation mail orders, and was able to get introduced to a lot of ethereal sounds – from Cocteau Twins to Slowdive.
I once heard the phrase, ‘music isn’t what you do, it’s who you are’. Do you think music goes deeper than sound?
Perhaps. When you think of compositions by Bach that have been around for hundreds of years, performed by generations of people, you realize it transcends – time, place, cultures. There were no sound recordings until 1877, so we’ve only had a brief history with it, particularly when you consider humans have been creating music since pre-historic times. All those compositions survived written out on pieces of paper, and it is up to the performer to interpret them, and it was for the longest of time the only way to hear them – performed in front of you. It says something about the power of great music itself.
What is the importance of music in the modern age? Within society, within culture, and our experience of life on this planet? Why do you think music has such lasting, transcendent power?
Music in this modern era could be observational (at least to me). To comment on the state of current affairs, to create perspective and make you think about things that perhaps we should be thinking about but we aren’t. Simultaneously, music could be viewed as a form of therapy, I way for us to cope with our human condition and challenges.
What drew you to music?
How I got into ambient electronic music? A friend from the punk/industrial scene played me The Orb in the 90’s and it completely blew my mind, so I wanted to learn more about synths, drum machines, etc. At one point during this period (mid 90’s), same friend played me “Only Shallow” by My Bloody Valentine. The minute those chords started, I remember thinking “I don’t know what does that elephant sound, but I sure want to play that!”
Do you think it’s possible to become a musician, or is someone born as one?
I certainly wasn’t born one. Still not sure if I am one yet to be honest. ‘Musician” is such a heavy word, serious stuff. Like proper training and whatnot!
How did you start off, and what records caught your ear early on?
I started organizing electronic music shows and experiential performances at concert halls, churches, and DIY art spaces during the early 00’s, eventually becoming an integral part of the Seattle music community. Throughout the mid-00’s, I was co-curator for Seattle’s Decibel Festival, focusing on the ambient, leftfield techno and experimental curatorial. Around this same period, I released my first album (Daydreaming) on Miasmah, which in turn caught the attention of the folks at Ghostly. I knew them from way before, through my dealings with the shows I was putting on in town, but it was around 2007 when Sam (Ghostly’s founder) started asking me for demos, which lead to the label signing me in 08, releasing all of The Sight Below albums, and helping my career immensely – playing festivals like Sonar, clubs like Berghain, etc, etc.
Ghostly has been a constant companion and part of my extended family for over a decade now. During one of those tours we did as The Sight Below, I met Lawrence English at a festival in Poland, which led to my first release with Room40 and the start of a very long-term collaboration and fruitful relationship. A full decade later we have a new album coming out, one in which Lawrence contributed immensely to it.
Do you have any favourite or influential musicians in particular?
I’ve been listening to Harold Budd’s music for over 25 years, so I’d say certainly something that’s stuck with me for a long period of time. Same can be said about Arvo Pärt, Mahler, Wagner, etc. Lately I’ve been on a nostalgia trip, listening to a lot of metal – from Slayer to Darkthrone. I have a soft spot for this period in music. Simultaneously, I did a mix for Ghostly recently of all 90’s ambient music – things I heard as a teenager in chill-out rooms and that I still love. Did I mention I have a really eclectic music taste?
Do you like to give the music a free reign, or do you approach a piece with a set melody or direction in mind?
Yeah, sometimes I do. I don’t really have a “formula” to making music. That’s a hard question to answer, as it could go into some many different directions: a field recording, a sound, a melody in any instrument, a thought, an idea, a feeling. There are so many different things that inspire, it’s hard to narrow down to the “one” thing I always do – my process is constantly evolving, and I rarely repeat myself when it comes to compositional approach.
Sometimes the most incredible things are rather simple things when deconstructed and analyzed. For me the process is engrained into the compositions. Many years ago, I would have a particular sound in my head, and I would try to recreate it, basing an entire composition from that idea. As I’ve developed further, I’ve become more and more obsessed with building my own tools to create new, unique vocabulary.
This of course is entirely personal and related to my own limitations as a musician – I’m not a proficient player in any instruments. I just play many instruments based on ideas and feelings I have at the time, so it’s not like I can sit down with sheet music and play some Bach on the piano. I took a more “punk “approach/direction, and decided that if I could take an instrument and express an emotion with it, it didn’t matter what my technical limitations were. This is of course, part of my process too: I use my limitations as part of my creative process. Rather than seeing something as a handicap, I observe it as opportunity to express myself in a unique way. At the same time, I do a lot of improvisation in the studio and record everything. Lots and lots of happy accidents tend to happen this way, so then my job as a composer becomes “managing” these accidents while shaping them into compositions.
Does your music specifically focus on a theme? Environment, decay, etc? Does your music point to a bigger picture, and a bigger theme within the world – current affairs, politics, psychology, etc? Do you prefer the music to have a neutral stance, to leave it open for interpretation?
I’ve been creating works related to landscapes & localities for the last 10 years. All the works on Room40 have this aspect. If you look at the old catalog, starting with “The North Bend,” which explored the Pacific Northwest region of the US, or “The Unintentional Sea” which was about the Salton Sea ecological disaster. At the same time, if you look at later albums on Umor Rex or Geographic North, they all have a political or existential theme. For instance, “The Shameless Years” (2017) was a direct result of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and its aftermath.
It is a record I was working on with Siavash Amini (Iranian musician) at a time when our shithead president was talking about banning Muslims from the US, and all this really heavy anti-immigrant policies, which really hit too close to home (coming from a family of immigrants myself). “Midnight Colours,” which came out at the start of 2018 is a record about the Doomsday Clock, a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. It’s a sort of soundtrack to the end of it all. Mankind’s own undoing. Funny thing about it: there’s a song called “2 ½ minutes” which at the time I wrote it, reflected upon the fact that in 2017 it was moved to that close to midnight (which again, symbolizes the end). By the time the album came out, the Clock was lowered further to 2 minutes to midnight, thus making the track title outdated. It IS that dire – our inability as species to tackle the destruction of our own habitat.
Do messages and themes come out of the music naturally and spontaneously, even if it was unintended?
Sometimes certain pieces of music have a feel that unavoidably can be interpreted in a certain way.
Is there any one instrument or sound source you find yourself especially drawn to?
I do write a lot using the electric guitar, as it was my first instrument, but it could be anything really, I’m not attached to anything.
Likewise, do you find yourself concentrating on certain moods or emotions more than others? Do you prefer a progression and a stand-alone work or do you return to certain emotions?
Not particularly, although for the longest of time I was more inclined towards melodies and sounds that could be categorized as sad. I feel there is great beauty in sadness that should be explored.
What are your thoughts on genres or styles? Do you find classification to be helpful, or do you feel it to be a restriction?
I don’t really care for them, it’s all music to me. I have a very eclectic taste and a very diverse background, so I reckon a lot of it could seem disparate to some, but in my head it all makes sense. Not limiting yourself to something only makes you grow further – culturally, musically, etc.
What are your thoughts on sound art, texture, and drone music? How do you make a piece both immersive and engaging?
The important thing is the content itself: is it memorable? does it have a narrative? Is the creator trying to make a larger point? That’s what separates something like William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops” (a masterpiece imho) from the YouTube wasteland of 800% slower memes.
The best correlation I can think of to creating ambient/drone music is stand-up comedy: it’s one thing to tell jokes to a couple of drunken friends at a party & another to build an entire routine that works flawlessly with a crowd at a comedy club.
Do you have a specific routine or ritual or does it vary?
I have one at the end of the process actually: once I finish new work, I send it out to a few labels with the sole purpose of getting rejected. An album without at least three rejection letters is a rather dull affair.
And from a more technical point of view, what’s involved in creating a record?
A lot of real effort. There are so many moving parts in the recording process. There is a myth one person can do it all – compose, produce, record, mix, master it, and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Every great sound recording have had a team of people working on it – from players performing the compositions, to the engineers, producers, etc that contribute their expertise to make an album the best it can possibly be. No man is an island – we all need one another.
Please take us through the process, starting from scratch.
For the latest album, Solastalgia, I wrote & conceptualized the pieces while I was visiting Iceland in Summer of 2018. I did some field recordings on the island, and brought them back with me. Upon my return to NY, I started recording some of the sketches I had made and developed them further. Once I had my initial themes, I sent to Lawrence English, who acted in a traditional “producer” kind of role – giving feedback and contributing with his input – “strategies against conformity” as I call it. On this album, I used my own singing voice for the first time, and as I was recording parts, I wanted to incorporate more, so I asked my friend Leandro Fresco (whom I’ve collaborated in the past for ASIP) to sing vocal parts. He recorded his parts in his native Argentina and sent to me, which then I processed and developed further. Once I had all the elements in place, I then move into the mixing process. Mind you, we are talking many weeks of process. I started working on the album in July 2018, started recordings in August, then working with Lawrence & Leandro most of September. I finally mixed the album in October, and sent to Lawrence for mastering, which ended up happening in December 2018. As you can see, we are now talking a 5-month period to create this record.
You own and run Black Knoll Studio in NYC. How does the mastering process work, and what do you enjoy the most about the process?
Black Knoll Studio is my day job and how I make a living. I work in the studio 7 days a week, as we are extremely busy. We are currently booking slots in the studio queue 2- 3 weeks in advance. Since I’ve been playing shows again this year, the schedule has gotten quite hectic. We have dozens of regular clients in the roster, all with different release schedules, so being able to manage them all effectively and most importantly, delivering on time so they can meet their deadlines requires a certain degree of commitment to the work. I jokingly tell people tours happens whenever I manage to unshackle myself from the mastering console desk.
To answer your question: Mastering is the final stage on a sound recording. It is post-production work. The goal (for me) is to make recordings sound nicer, fuller, with a distinctive tonal character. It is never about making things just LOUDER. Mastering is an art form and there is not one authoritative studio or engineer – it is mostly all in the eye (or ears rather) of the beholder. As the saying goes: “there’s more than one way to cook an egg.” The most important part for me is creating a system of checks & balances. As an artist myself, I seldom master my own music. I relish having that extra pair of ears listen to my creations, opine, and give me some feedback.
Is there a uniformity to your mastering work, or does every work present a different challenge and opportunity?
I’ve been told by many clients there is a particular “sound” to BKS – it’s probably a combination of the equipment I use, the room, and the monitoring, along with my own aesthetic. That said, I work so many different styles and genres of music, I take it with a grain of salt. The truth is every record I master is different, and thus, needs to be treated differently, so there is not an exact way of doing anything – what works on one album will probably not work on the next one, and that can even be said of albums by the same artist. For examples, if you listen to the recent Hotel Neon albums we mastered, they are completely different sounding, even though I mastered both of them, with the band present in the session. The fact the music itself is different, already makes it unique. That said – there is a certain level of cohesiveness to the work.
Please tell us more about your upcoming album on Room40, Solastalgia?
“Solastalgia” is an album conceptualized around the existential dread of climate change. It was composed mainly in Iceland in summer of 2018 (see above). During my stay, I visited many of the melting glaciers, where the effects of climate change are not just theoretical, but a very observable phenomena. The album cover is a photo of the vanishing glacier of Snæfellsjökull. This glacier, which towers over the National park of Snæfellsnes, is thinning out from warmer climates; according to scientists, it has been fast retreating for the past 25 years and will, if the trend continues, be mostly gone around the middle of this century.
Finally, do you have any other plans for the rest of the year? Any upcoming tours or other projects?
I’ve been delivering several masters for Ghostly International – projects I can’t really discuss at the moment but that I’m really excited about. Mastered (or mixed in some cases) some of my current favorite artists. Aside from the usual workload at Black Knoll, I’m plotting out several tours (I mentioned Australia above). In September, we’ll be playing at Cafe OTO in London (September 16), which I really look forward to, as the last time I played at OTO my soundcard blew up, and the show ended abruptly – too intense I reckon! I’m positive it will be better this time around, so I hope London-based listeners can come to this show. Simon Scott (from Slowdive) and I have been playing a few shows together this year. While in Stockholm in March, we ended up collaborating onstage, so perhaps there’s opportunity to do it again in London at the OTO show. Don’t miss!
James would like to thank Rafael for his time and for the interview. His latest album, Solastalgia, releases June 21 on Room40. You can find out more information and purchase it here.