Bert Strolenberg - October 2010
Interview with: AMONGST MYSELVES
by Bert Strolenberg
Date: Oct 18 2010
Dweller through cinematic ambient landscapes and cosmic territories: an interview with Steve Roberts, aka Amongst Myselves
Steve, first of all domsketch a bit of a background on yourself as a person and as an electronic composer, as I only know your artist name originated from the Future Sound of London’s cd "Lifeforms"..
When I was very young, about 10 years old, my eldest brother had made a sound / noise generator as a project for college where he was studying to be a electronic technician. I think my father called this thing a "Beep Barp" which is the sound it spent most of it's time producing. It was a printed circuit board with a few transistors, resistors, capacitors with a few knobs. I loved this thing. I had no idea how it worked and eventually it stopped working and probably got thrown out . Maybe this was my first indicator that somewhere down the years I would come to see this as something that I'd like to investigate. My first keyboard was a little Yamaha keyboard. The sort with various dance (I mean old style) rhythms built in. The first thing I did was put my guitar chorus pedal on the output to give me something "spacey". Once I'd explored my interest in keyboards I had enough money to buy a Yamaha CS-15D which was a duo-phonic synthesiser that had a pile of pre-sets but also a basic analogue synthesiser section. It was the greatest thing as far as I was concerned. It allowed me to create sounds from scratch. Admittedly it was a simple synthesiser and had limited sound options. It sounded great until one day I decided to pull the back off and have a fiddle with some of the potentiometers and thus it never sounded the same again. They call this "hacking" these days but I wasn't really interested in noise based sounds. There isn't much that I own to this day that I haven't "pulled the back off" to have a look at how things work.
So what happened next?
Well, after leaving High School I spent 18 months at the School of Audio Engineering studying audio engineering which showed me that I didn't want to become an audio engineer but helped me learn more about composition in the sense that I would compose with the final audio mix in mind. I learnt the technical things that a creator of final music needs to get what they are after. With my interest in synthesisers growing I again "upgraded" to a Roland SH-5. This was the real deal. I still think it was a great synthesiser as I alas no longer own it. At the same time I bought a new Roland SH-101. Another great synthesiser which had a basic sequencer.
What kind of music were you listening then?
I was actually listening to lots of Isao Tomita, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream at this time. The photos on the album covers and lists of equipment that Tomita used was pure "techno porn". So my focus was all on synthesiser sound ability more so than a polyphonic keyboard. In reality my budget was very limited.
My main recording medium at this time was cassette and I had two reasonable quality machines. I would do multi-layered recordings by recording an initial line of a synthesiser on one cassette machine, then play that recording back via a mixer while performing the next line and recording the two lines to the second cassette machine.
There was no computer-based recording abilities available and reel tape machines were expensive for me. You would not believe the sorts of tape noise levels I had to deal with, not to mention the artefacts caused by misaligned heads etc. I'd would now think of the effects created from the tape mechanism as an interesting effect whereas in those days I was strictly interested in layered melodic tunes and clean sounds.
My only real source of new and different music in this electronic area was from two radio programs. One was Jaroslav Kovaricek's "Dreamtime" and the other was "Scratching the Surface" hosted I believe by Andrew McLennan. Jaroslav's program was ambient based and played lots of what I would now call new age music but he also played lots of "classical" pieces as well.
I first heard Robert Rich's "Cave Paintings" from the "Trances" release which was available on cassette at the time. I've noticed that you can get it on cd now. This was something I had never heard before. Not that I thought it was what I liked at the time. I was still into more melodic pieces. "Scratching the Surface" was more experimental including electro-acoustic pieces and field recordings which I was fascinated by but again at the time I didn't really think of them in a musical sense.
About this time I met some like minded people who had small studios based around synthesisers and started to learn a lot more about other composers out there. Though these peoples' focus was more on synthesisers as parts of bands doing basically rock music there was lots to be learnt. I also expanded my abilities in the area of electronic construction. My grand plan was to build my own synthesiser. I did finally do this later on with my first mini modular synthesiser, "PAIA 9700". I've also recently found the "Music from Outer Space" web site from where I've got parts to build a "Weird Sound Generator" which has taken me back to my first noise maker that I had when I was 10 years old.
At this stage in life I felt that music was not going to be my main focus so in 1989 I started a Bachelor degree in Arts majoring in Film and Electronic Media. I decided that I'd like to work in the technical orientated side of the film industry. I also took on studies in electronic music and performance as electives. In my last year of study I took up a position in a news department at a local TV station which was at least a job in the industry.
Meanwhile I also worked with a fellow graduate doing 3-D animation which led to both of us being employed by a specialist film production company whose focus was motion control camera equipment and production. During our time there we joined with two other fellow employees to create a new company that focussed on visual effects for film and TV.
I was doing very little music at all. In fact it was probably the first time since the mid 80's that I hadn't been involved in some sort of band or production. My time was 110% focussed on the new visual effects company we had created. Several hard years later I realised that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life working in the film industry. So in 1999 I decided to pack in the lucrative job in film, get myself a casual job to pay the bills and focus on creating music for myself to share with the world.
Can you give an overview of the albums you made so far, and how the music on them compares to each other?
My first cd "The Sun in the Bottle" was a retrospective of the sorts of music I was composing in my early days. Many of the tracks were quite old and the style is quite different to what I've done since. The opening track "Before Now" is probably the closest thing to what I would now consider to be an Amongst Myselves track. This was the stage when I had started using a computer to do the actual audio recordings. I sold all my keyboards to set this up properly which was a big step. It reflects my early influences – Tomita and Vangelis I think. "To Wish Impossible Things" is a song, in fact a cover of a Cure track. This album was a reflection of what I had played around with during the previous ten years..
"Still Life" came next, and is really my first steps in experimental ambient music where I've started to concentrate on texture more than melody. Longer pieces that take the listener on a journey. There's a big space theme running through this album which is something that continues with "Sacred Black". I wouldn't call it "Space" music as such. I've never quite got the hang of genres within "ambient" music as each person has there own ideas about what each genre sounds like. Many of my influences are places I've visited and stories I've heard. A big musical influence during this period was "Future Sound of London". The sound scape stories that they told are to this day brilliant, in my opinion.
As previously mentioned, "Sacred Black" continues the space theme. Several track titles are from the writings of cosmologist, Carl Sagan. I was quite paranoid about this album as I was trying to fit myself into a mould by trying not to go against the grain with what I thought was the type of track that fitting this album from a listener's perspective. My initial thoughts were that the pieces didn't fit together very well. Later however I decided that I had invested too much time and effort into worrying about how people will perceive my work and realized this album gels together really well.
With my release "Auburn Silhouette" I decided that I no longer wanted to get stuck in a genre and that I shouldn't "stay within the queue". By this I mean the inclusion of essentially rock based tracks like "Hole in the Sky" and "Winter of the Falling Stars", and yes that's still the guitar I got when I was 14. This album is a lot more hi-fi as well due to the variations in textures being more dynamic in tone. I'm influenced by many styles of music and I like to bring some of those things that differentiate them into my work. The way I construct an album is a bit like a film. I like to think that whole album is one sound experience that people listen to as a whole. In reality I only split tracks up for radio play. If I was 100% confident in my work I would have one track per album…..
So what made you decide to make "Fragments", a kind of remix-album based on elements from your previous four releases?
As an experiment to help spark ideas, I tried pulling elements from old tracks out and starting using those elements mixed together. I'd try an idea out and then the successful recreations would be worked upon and go somewhere. There's also that creative decision moment when you have certain options and you take "road b" as such. Well I thought what happens if I decided to take the "road a". I also limited myself to what I was to use and forced myself to fit parts in certain locations without too many new elements. I'd compare it to the way people use loops to create nowadays. I've essentially done the same thing. Instead of having instruments as sound sources I've used audio tracks from previous works. Thus the idea of "Fragments" was to reflect those moments when sitting quietly going over your thoughts and memories. I have strong emotions connected with all my tracks and it's interesting to me to hear what I've joined together from that emotion relationship along with a musical / textural relationship.
How does the process of starting a composition look like for you?
Well, quite often a piece will start as a sound. It could be a field recording, something from the kitchen, a random synthesizer patch anything really. The modern composing system based around a computer allows me to get an instant result as far as an some ideas go. Although my lack of in-depth knowledge and effective use of software can cause ideas to be lost or changed to something that I wasn't aiming for. Though this often produces something random that is just as interesting. Most of my ambient type music is based around texture more than chords structures and melody.
Steve, your style varies across genres. Is there a reason for this?
This is a continuing annoyance for me from a marketing point of view. The market prefers that you have a genre, probably starting from when records were sorted into racks and probably more so now that mp3 files have genres. I think of my music fitting under the "ambient" genre which covers a vast area but having a similar experimental / ethereal sound. My influences are equally from rock music and electronic based music. I first started playing lead guitar in a band when I was 13, doing Shadows covers. I was always interested in the sound of the guitar, as much as the notes being played. This was also the period in my life when I would listen to a national music program called "Scratching the Surface" which played lots of experimental music.
One piece that really intrigued me and also scared the hell out of me was Turkish composer, Ilhan Mimaroglu's "Wings of the Delirious Demon", created using the sounds of a tape recorder manipulated clarinet. The program also contained lots of electro-acoustic works of recreated scenes or landscapes which fascinated me and made me pay attention to all sorts of sounds.
To me, your music also appears to be quite minimal…
"Fragments" is very minimal for me, made up of different sections of previous albums and other sources but it also has it's small moments when the band appears and starts playing. It's a constructed field recording if you like, referring back to what I said about my enjoyment in listening to street sounds.
The old cliché that we live busy lives and need a place to escape to relax is something that I can certainly agree with. Though I don't think I am really relaxed when I create music. It's a different mind set that is wonderful when it happens – you're onto something and you must keep going until you've finished the piece. Although what often happens is you hit a dead end. This is why I have lots of half finished pieces waiting for the dead end to be removed.
Can you give an overview what sort of instrumentation you use?
I use many different sources of sound when started to work on a new piece though when it comes to chromatic structures I have a variety of synthesizers both hardware and soft. I tend to use my hardware synths when I need to create or modify a sound as I feel the need to adjust knobs and switches which you still can't really do with software synthesizers especially when it comes to quick changes during a recording session. Whereas I use my software synthesizers for preset sounds when I need a string type sound for example. This will then usually be modified with software sound effects.
The thing that makes composing on a computer so easy is the ability to recall previous work. I have a large amount of half completed works that need a certain state of mind and new ideas to complete them so having them up and running, ready to go on the computer at anytime is fantastic. I've also built several electronic gadgets that I use to create weird and wonderful noises with, of course these are all non digital pieces which have no sounds recall function. I use guitar in many pieces as well but mostly it is heavily effected to unintentionally disguise the instrument. I find the Ebow a great guitar 'controller' for creating long sustained sounds that allow for drone type music.
Later on, you started including videos with your releases. What's this all about ?
My professional background prior to focusing on music was in visual effects in the film and television industry. When working in those days I often thought of pieces of music and visuals that would work well together. One of my main areas in the past was working with time-lapse film and motion control (robot) camera systems. I've always wanted to combine my music with visuals where appropriate.
My interests have lead me to build my own computer controlled time-lapse system which allows me to do this sort of thing whenever I have the time, which gives me great flexibility. It's an expensive and time consuming adjunct to my music as I have to build the equipment, program the computers and test it but it's part of the same thing for me. I haven't including any visuals with "Fragments" as it's up to the individual to visualize by themselves. Although I have been working on a live show while making "Fragments" which will now be a dvd.
Please tell some more about this "live" dvd you’re working on…
I started out a few years ago with idea of doing a live show. Initially it was to get out there and play covers of science fiction theme tunes of all things and then I thought I'd better focus on Amongst Myselves since a simple idea had become a huge one.
From here I devised a show which would be more like a film with live music being provided by me and a backing computer. This led to a couple of old friends becoming interested in helping out. So we devised a newer show idea which would have them performing alongside me using their own instruments and less backing off a computer.
For this to work we needed to change the compositions to those that I had original recorded and I found that it would be as easy to include some new unused tracks as well since we were changing things. All was going well with rehearsals but we found the process of actually practicing the more minimal pieces to be very difficult especially for the other members who have come from rock orientated backgrounds. I was now four years into this which I was getting quite frustrated with and decided that it had to be completed as it was taking too long. But as things turned out it just changed direction. Instead of being a one off show it has now become a concert of a live performance. Of course this concert never happened. We have planned to film several of the more lively tracks this summer to be release sometime in the future. In the end the reason for doing the live show was to show people what I did but I thought about it in depth and realized that I don't really sit in front of a keyboard and compose music I do it quite randomly and using processes that cannot be done live so I felt I was trying to fit myself into a performance situation which was really me. Maybe one day I'll have another think about it.
What made you compose and release music after all?
I suppose I release music to show who I am and to get a reaction. I've always enjoyed playing live in bands because it's a relatively easy way of getting feedback on your music and musicianship. In the past in bands we've recorded music but mainly for our own record and enjoyment because you don't really get to see what it sounds and looks like when you're in the band. Since I'm not a band that performs I need feedback from some other source. So the best approach for me is to get reviews written and have my music played on radio programs. For this I need to release my music. The idea of having a record company release my music is something I naively thought I would do when I recorded my first album but soon realized the area was changing and I decided that for my area of music self releasing was a better and only option.
So what inspires you?
Many different things inspire my tracks. As I've mentioned a track often starts with a texture or field recording but how it develops depends on a mood that I think is coming through the track. I may be inspired by a book that I'm reading at the time. "Sacred Black" was influenced in this way.
I was reading Carl Sagan's biography and also "Galileo's Daughter" by Dava Sobel. "Fragments" my latest release was inspired by the remote natural places I had visited and where many of the field recordings were done. Of course my musical influences also help to develop how a track forms and I try to push the envelope and avoid too many clichés. One thing I do find is that I invest too much thought into what the listener may think of my music. Something that I'm trying to break away from.
I spend quite a lot of holiday time in remote locations within Australia especially the Flinders Ranges here in South Australia. Quite often I travel up to do time-lapse photography but also do bush walks and camp. I find that being in a quiet location with a vast panorama of hills and sparse vegetation to be very relaxing. There are no jet trails in the sky, no cars in the distance, just the sound of the blood traveling through your ears. The inspiration generated by this location is immense. I have a plan to do a Flinders Ranges suite as it were but I've yet to be convinced of a concept for it.
Can you already reveal something of your future plans?
Well, I've been working on more experimental pieces which have always had a place in Amongst Myselves' releases. Whenever I travel for holiday or business I take my field recorder and record as much as possible. I especially enjoy the sounds of everyday life in the streets which can make for a great bed track, be it straight or somehow augmented with effects. The effect that I have created on some tracks I'm currently working on borders on manufactured field recordings. Fun stuff if you ask me…
Michael Foster - Ambient Visions - November 2010
Interview between Steve Roberts (Amongst Myselves) and Micheal Foster of Ambient Visions
AV: Where did your love of music originally come from?
SR: Wow what a question. I started out listening to popular music as I imagine most people did in the 70s. My brothers had a great influence in what I heard in my early life having 3 older ones. It's funny but I think what I love is sound more so than music especially since I consider lots of the music I now listen to and compose to be more sound art than music. Be it naturally created sound or electronically realised.
AV: Who were some of the first electronic/atmospheric music artists that you listened to and what was it that attracted you to this kind of music?
SR: I probably started hearing Electro Acoustic sounds when I was quite young on an Australian radio program, "Scratching the Surface". My brother and I thought it was funny and scary, I was only 12 years old or so. It was interesting because unlike pop music you didn't really know what was going to happen next. It was also on late at night when the surrounding environment was quiet. From this left field influence to something a bit more popular, one of my brothers bought a Tomita album, I think it was Snowflakes are Dancing. My brother having more main stream interests was also into "classical" orchestral music which I suppose Snowflakes fell into. I found it interesting in that he used synthesisers to create orchestral sounding instruments. It was using a synth to recreate acoustic instruments. I was just as intrigued by the rear cover of the record which had a picture of Isao in his studio surrounded but all his gear. I wanted that ! But that was the mainstream. What I found more interesting were snippets of synths that I would hear in pop music which were not imitating an acoustic instrument but were producing something I'd never heard before. I also started hearing other rock groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rick Wakeman, Genesis, all using synths as a main part of their music but once again nothing new in the style of music.
As far as atmospheric music I think Tangerine Dream would have been an initial spark for me. This lead to Edgar Froese's Epsilon in Malaysian Pale which certainly had a great influence especially since I had a second-hand album full of scratches which certainly added to the effect. Another album that was part of that era for me is David Bedford's "The Odyssey". For me the long pieces with minimal sequence lines really started me off in the direction of long form beatless music. Continuing on, Steve Roach and Robert Rich helped bolster my direction.
AV: What are some of the defining characteristics of electronic/atmospheric/ambient music that pulls people away from the mainstream pop/rock genres that so inundates the airwaves of our society? Do you think of these genres as an acquired taste if you've never been exposed to them before?
SR: I think most peoples idea of music falls into conventional songs and instrumental works or “Organised sound” as Edgard Varèse put it. I personally don't really think of ambient music as music, it's more sound art. Sure there maybe sections of music but I think of the conventional music sections within my own album, Fragments as like a passing band or musical thought. What I think attracts people to ambient sounds is the imagery that is created in the mind when listening to it. There are quite often spaces within the sound for you to have thoughts. More experimental works eg. Electro-acoustics can be an acquired taste but I think of these areas more like modern visual art in the sense that it's not the result that's of interest but more so the process and reasons for doing the piece are as important. For me these more experimental sounds are very important as they influence the less experimental to create a more acquired result.
AV: So was it as simple as getting together a couple of old cassette decks and a couple of synthesisers for you to begin composing? At this point in time what was it that you were hoping to accomplish and what was it that you actually did accomplish with such a modest equipment base with your music?
SR: During that period I seemed to have lots of output but no real way of realising or recording what I had imagined. It was more of a learning stage where I was trying all these ideas out to see what would happen. I had only monosynths (one note at a time), a very simple sequencer (no computers at this stage), a noisy reverb unit and so I essentially would have to imagine what I wanted from the beginning of the idea. For me now this seemed like a great way of learning what I needed to do to achieve a certain sound. It was during this stage that I found myself limited by technology that was affordable. Like I mentioned before I salivated at the idea of having Tomita's studio. Today I think the opposite has happened in that I'm overwhelmed by what computer composing software can do. I've not really gone into the depths of the programs capability since all I really want is something that can record audio and midi and apply effects. Thus another limitation. Simple really.
AV: Tell me about some of the material you released as Southern Garden and what you liked about that period of you musical career?
SR: I was fascinated by the beauty and serenity of the natural environment during that part of my life. I wanted so desperately to travel and see all these wonderful locations I had read about within Australia. I think the majority of my music reflected my thoughts of these places. There was nothing political in my music during that period though I did play guitar in a punk band at this time which was a REAL contrast. Later I started doing pieces which were about the destruction and removal of these natural places. I suppose this started around the time I went to university to study media which made me more aware of the wider world.
AV: When did you start going by the name of Amongst Myselves and was there a significance to why you chose this for your performance name?
SR: It was at a stage when I'd recently had enough of hard working in the film industry which was a struggle for 6 years and decided that my real interest was in audio. It was also a period when ambient music had been re-invented due to the dance scene. Chill out music was now here. As you may be aware my name comes from a Future Sound of London track title, "Among Myself". I was entranced by their music - the darkness and film soundtrack like quality of album, "Dead Cities" was stunning. The funniest bit about how I found the group was via a Playstation game named Wipeout 2097 in which their track "We Have Explosive" was my choice during play. I looked them up and bought everything they released at this time. I chose the name as it reflected the nature of how I created my stuff - from within me and by me. Having been in many bands, finding a name has always been a difficult thing so I learnt that not trying too hard was the best approach. There were some other suggested names around at the time which I can't remember though they would be handy for releasing under at some stage.
AV: The Sun in the Bottle album that came out back in 1999 was definitely new age in its basis with a hint of electro-acoustics. What was there about new age musical styling that you didn't feel led to continue to pursue it since Still Life moved more in the direction of ambient/space/drone music?
SR: I didn't feel my strength was in regular, "normal" music composing but within texture creation. I don't have a great opinion of New Age music as I feel it's like something a computer would create given certain parameters. Of course this is a complete generalisation but I felt the image of New Age music was all alternative religions and native peoples and since I was either it wasn't really the thing for me to do. "New Age" music to me was an extension of the drug Prozac which gives the impression that you have to be happy all the time. It's natural to feel down every now and then.
AV: I've always been curious even after all these years about true beatless ambient or drone releases. As a composer how is it that you "compose" something that to the casual listener doesn't seem to have any structure? How do you start and how do you know you are done with a piece?
SR: I always start with a sound / texture. Sometimes I'll sit at a keyboard and hit a random patch key and after many tries I get a sound that is playable. From this I generally get an idea of what the sound and eventually piece can do. Sometimes it goes nowhere but when it does work you can't stop until you've finished, you just want to keep going. This is where computer based software can get in your way. Although it has infinite possibilities it also takes some time to get there. I've often stalled because I've forgotten how to do something or there's a bug and the computer crashes. How the piece progresses is based on my preferences and moods. Once the piece is getting fully developed I get images of what the piece is doing and thus the title comes around and the track develops even further. On past albums I've found the random process of using Convolution to be interesting. It's a process often used to recreate reverbs of physical spaces based around an audio recording which is used as a impulse response. But instead of giving the program an impulse of say a cathedral you give it the sound of a guitar strum. My piece "5am Melbourne 1996" is almost completely created with guitar and the sound from a television commercial. It gives really interesting and usable results. I try for long convolutions sometimes up to 4 minutes in length. So I have often used the evolution of that one sound as the structure of a whole track. This can quite often be the basis of the track's structure.
AV: Tell me about your association with Ultima Thule and how it was that you came to create their theme music? How influential was Ultima Thule in regards to the breadth of electronic music that you were exposed to?
SR: George Cruickshank has been a great supporter of Australian ambient music and the ambient music scene in general. I had just released "Still Life" and of course I sent a copy to George. Suddenly I get an email in almost note form (George is a very busy man), asking to ring him to discuss using "Ship of Dreams" as the new title music. I was stunned. We had a quick talk and he emailed me what he needed as far as edits for the radio program. So I got to work on shortening the piece to suit the times George asked for and recording me doing some appropriate sonorous voice and there you have it. My work with George has continued with helping him out with the mastering of "Chasing the Dawn: Ultima Thule Ambient 01" compilation CD. Did you know George is the Sovereign Head of State of his own micro-nation ? You'll have to ask him about that or go to http://www.atlantium.org .
AV: In your bio you state that after the success of Still Life you "realised that you were headed in the right direction; a direction which is constantly challenging, trying to break away from the normal". What is it that you find challenging about working with these types of compositions and why are you trying to break away from normal?
SR: I've always tried to be different from the mainstream. I feel the constant dumbing down and conformity of modern society to be very destructive and many of the problems the world faces are based on the capitalist goals of money. I suppose it's an attempt to stand out as being different. .
AV: You also did sound design on short films a few years back. How did that come about and why did you find it inspiring in regards to the work you do as Amongst Myselves?
SR: I studied film at University which eventually led to starting up a visual effects company with 3 colleagues. It was during this demanding period that I realised that even though I had achieved what many could only dream of within the industry that it was not cutting it for me and decided to follow the interest of music instead of the money. This was not to say that I had cut all ties with the film industry. I met up with old college friends years later who asked if I'd be interested in doing sound for some shorts. I jumped at idea because in many ways I see my style and approach to music being quite similar if not the same as film sound. Well my approach anyway. It was also another creative outlet that was outside the scope of Amongst Myselves.
AV: In regards to composing music for films is it a different mindset compared to how you work when you are creating music for you own projects?
SR: The idea that someone else is the director is a welcome change of thought process and a challenge at the same time. I get images in my head of what my Amongst Myselves tracks are saying whereas with the films I'm given the image and it's up to me to interpret them to a certain level. My only stumbling block is that I'm quite controlling and for all the films I've worked on I've done ALL the sound apart from the dialogue recording. I know that generally sound effects and music is a compromise area where neither department really know what the outcome will be whereas doing it all yourself you sculpt it there and then. Very satisfying. For me the line between sound effect and music is blurred. This is another reason why I like to do both sound effects and music for a film.
AV: Your latest effort is called Fragments. This is a rather interesting project that uses elements from three previous albums in new ways. What were your goals in using elements of these previous releases to be the foundation of your newest release?
SR: As an exercise I have often used Sony Acid which is a loop based composing package based around audio loops to compose new simple pieces of music from a large library of loops that I've gathered over the years. This lead me to think about doing it with my own work. I'm never really finished with a piece and the only way to stop working on it is to decide to release something and have the CDs pressed. That's usually the end of musical piece for me but as an experiment one day I dragged off all the audio from my previous releases and started laying them up in Cakewalk Sonar. It was totally random to start with. But I started to find sections that worked well together and I knew it I started to piece a mood through the whole album. Fragments uses lots of field recordings which I love to have in my work. It reflects back to those feelings of the natural environment that I had during the Southern Garden days. Not all of the work on Fragments is from archive. Lots of it is new to help extend the ideas that the archival audio has started.
AV: Tell me about field recordings. Where do you go looking for them and how do you use them in your compositional work?
SR: I tend to take my field recorder whenever I go on a holiday trip or a filming trip. Mostly they are natural ambience in outback / country locations. I also do recordings of unusual sounds within the city scape and play around with them. Quite often I'll use a field recording in a convolution program to get something new. I don't intentionally go out to find sounds but keep an ear open for any sounds that I come across on a daily basis.
AV: Even though Fragments consists of 9 tracks do you see the album as a single compositional piece that offers the listener a unified sound experience? Why so?
SR: I do see Fragments as one piece and although I have created 9 tracks amongst this piece they really are markers to where the piece turns as opposed to separate tracks. It's a bit silly but I make separate tracks sometimes so it makes selection by radio stations easier with I think is a confidence thing so the next big challenge would be to release a one track album.
AV: Is it challenging for you to bring together elements of 3 older sources plus new elements and bring them all together as something that sounds like they belong together? If you can could you please describe the process that had to occur for this to happen the way you envisioned it?
SR: It's a difficult thing because it's not a jigsaw. Jigsaws only go together in one way. It's basically like any other process a composer would use. You need to have the same musical key so the tones go together. This is where it was easier for me as I tragically found that I put many of my tracks in the key of D. Probably a throwback to being a guitar player. Must stop doing that. A piece of music is always going to flow from the mood you are in or a mood you feel like exploring. I don't think it's challenging at all it's really fun and natural for me to move these different sections around.
AV: You've been featured on several samplers over the years including a couple of volumes of email@example.com, Ultima Thule's sampler and of course the Dark Duck Download Project. How has this helped you to get exposure for the music of Amongst Myselves? How do you decide what track(s) to contribute to a sampler?
SR: I've been very fortunate with the compilations. I try to give the record label something that is new and ready for the public. In most cases it's been a track that I've just finished working on. You also have to take into account the mood of the compilation album. The ambient@hyperreal albums were great in the sense that it was a listener voted process which is a great confidence boost. The exposure is great for all of the composers as long as there is backup in the form of marketing etc. It's a pity they haven't continued but we all know sales of CDs have plummeted and quite often the people behind the release are interested in money in the end and also they don't do the sums to realise that money making and ambient music are very difficult indeed.
AV: It also sounds like you have put a lot of effort into the "concert in your living room" performance to eventually be released on DVD. What are you hoping to accomplish with this performance and how will it be pushing the boundaries of what you have already done?
SR: Well it started out as being a "proper" live show but due to several circumstances this fell apart. The people I was working with had difficulty in realising the music especially the slow evolving pieces. Adding to this, the long period of time which it was taking to get all the visuals and music to a stage where I thought we were ready to perform was affecting the enthusiasm. So we decided to cut our losses and using the idea Jarré used. The best outcome now was to release a DVD. With the help of friend and artist Bernard Haseloff we created projection visuals for the whole show so I'm planning to edit in these visuals with the live performance. The live performance elements are currently being recorded and I have quite a lot of visual content to finalise. Following this stage I have the mixing of the audio to complete of which I aiming to do as a surround mix. The idea behind the DVD is really to push the visual / audio ideas that I have for the music.
AV: How much inspiration do you still find in the more innovative musical groups or solo acts working in the more mainstream genres of the music business? (Banco de Gaia, Thomas Dolby, Bjork, Underworld, Art of Noise etc.) Even in the homogenized world of pop music are there still bright spots that keep cropping up that make it worthwhile to at least listen now and again?
SR: One of my most favourite finds in the last few years is when I saw a film clip on Rage. Rage is a all night music video program in Australia that shows all range of video clips. The clips was quite long and the music was very slow and there were just some people dressed in white dancing on a rocky beach. It was fantastic and as the title of the band came up I soon got to know Sigur Rós. I've found their music to be very inspirational especially for a non-speaker of Icelandic, even the lyrics are just another instrument. One of the tracks off of Auburn Silhouette is a direct nod to my appreciation of their music.
AV: Having started with a couple of cassette recorders and a couple of synthesizers how do you feel about the technology that you use today? How has technology allowed you to expand your vision and set new goals for yourself in regards to where you want your music to take you?
SR: Well it's a lot easier and cheaper to record high quality sound. I use Cakewalk Sonar and have used Cakewalk products since around 1990. Back then it was only MIDI data though. I use probably 50% software based synthesizers mainly because their quality supersedes my hardware synths. Though I do have a couple of modular synths that are fun to play around with that a computer screen will never replace. Plus I can have unlimited patches at the touch of button. The convolution method I use has only been available since computers came to be used for music and sound. I find the software to be extremely flexible which has it's own demons as it make some things quite complicated to do. Sometimes I think back to the days of the cassette decks and think how easy it was to do some things but I have forgotten how bad the sound quality was. One of the main benefits for me is to be able to recall a track within seconds to exactly how I left it whereas in the days of cassette tapes that was a little problematic. I could learn lots more about the software and probably do things easier but I find too many people on the Cakewalk forum doing exactly this and I'm not sure they actually do any composing.
AV: Finally, what do you want to experiment with in regards to your music that you haven't already done to date? Looking back on your work to date how do you feel about what you have already done?
SR: I've already a direction for my next New release which is looking to be quite Dark and VERY minimal but that comes after the DVD and associated CD of the Live show. Hopefully showing another side of Amongst Myselves. It's interesting when I'm working on releasing an album. Once it's sitting in the boxes all pressed and looking great I turn into marketing mode and treat it likes it's someone else's music. It's only when I'm 6 - 12 months from the release that I can really enjoy one of my CDs. You have your head in it for months and often years and you do get sick of it to some degree but it is when you listen back that you think did I do this ? It sounds great !
AV: Well I certainly like where you have been and where you are going in terms of your sound art and I thank you ever so much for taking the time out to talk to Ambient Visions and I wish you much success in the years to come. I know I'll be keeping tabs on your efforts.
Morpheus Mall - 25th October 2012
MORPHEUS MUSIC INTERVIEW - AMONGST MYSELVES
25.10.12 - on release of Ambient, Landscape and Space
Q: Could you tell us something about your early experiences with synths?
My first actual synthesizer was a Yamaha CS-15D which had a great warm sound. It was a monophonic synth with a basic VCO / VCF / VCA arrangement. I did have noise making gadgets before then as well.
My first gadget was something one of my brothers had built which was called a "Beep Barp" as this is the sort of noises it made. After this I made up a kit which was the basis of an organ where you had a stylus type keyboard. It was more fun hacking the circuit board by soldering wires and seeing what happened.
Like most of my gear, the first thing I did to the CS-15D was pull the back off and had a look at what made it tick. I had a fiddle with the trimpots inside and it didn't quite sound the same ever again. You see, this machine had a preset section on it as well which had the standard sort of instrument that sounded nothing like the real instruments they were labelled as.
In that era I was doing melodic stuff with the keyboard - classical works along the line of Switched on Bach and the odd original piece. At the time I was also in a band doing Shadows covers along with other similar era types of music so I would often drag the synth into that music as well.
I didn't record many of my compositions during that time as I was still at high school and I didn't really have a way of recording. We did have really old reel to reel recorders that didn't really work. So it was a total live experience in those days. I came across a photo at my parents place which is me doing an unscheduled performance one night when I was about 16 I think.
Q: To what degree would you say you 'write music' or does it just happen, grow or emerge?
Mostly I make it up as I go along. Often a sound instantly makes me play something on a keyboard and I'll pay some time and attention to this to see if it develops into something that is interesting.
Sometimes I have an idea with regard to creating a sound based on convolution or time warping which can lead to the basis for a mood which I would then develop into a complete track.
Recently, though, I have felt that I've not done much in the way of new work. During the whole process of ALS I was working with old tracks apart from a couple of new ones. It was a three year process from the original planning stage to the day I burnt the master dvd for ALS. During this time I spent very little on new Amongst Myselves music. I was almost scared of trying to write new music. How weird is that? So I've started making time for music in the sense that I will sit down and do something for a morning or a day if a piece is going somewhere interesting. I have several tracks that are what I'd call 'exercises' where I have taken a simple idea and developed it but not something that I would release.
Luckily I've started quite a few new tracks that will definitely be released on an upcoming album.
Q: How did the idea of combining audio and visual content for this release come about?
I've always thought of visuals and audio as part of Amongst Myselves. It's only been the last ten years that people can cheaply and easily create visuals that can be affordably delivered to an audience. Even more so now through web sites like Youtube and Vimeo since they have become an everyday part of user's life hence replacing television.
Having had the background in visual creation I often think of the visual before the piece.
Q: How would you suggest listeners approach the album to get the most out of it?
ind the biggest screen possible, sit as close as possible and turn the sound up really loud. It's certainly not the sort of thing you watch on your portable device. Like all my work it's aimed at total immersion.
Q: How would you say working with fellow artists compares with your solo endeavours?
I found the experience to be very hard to be honest. Generally I am a pretty easy going person who enjoys other people's involvement and working together but when it came to Amongst Myselves it was crossing over the line too much for me. Again it was not originally intended as a collaboration.
Q: How would you like to develop your own contribution to the field?
Keep trying new things. I'm not really a genre-nazi and I think I am comfortable with the idea that I can essentially compose anything that remotely fits the ambient genre. To me the constant theme to put into ambient music is un-reality, fiction, new worlds, new landscapes. To keep bringing personal experiences into the music and vision.
Q: How did you first begin recording your own ambient music?
My first ambient style of music probably happened when I was at university. I was studying in both the film and music departments at this time. I had access to a couple of 4 track reel to reel machines as well as Ensoniq samplers which at the time were way out of my league. Of course I was supposed to be doing film work and curriculum based music but I always managed to sneak extra bookings in as most students spent as little time in these places as they had to.
I was also in a band which did electronic based dance music with a blues influence. We spent lots of time building up a studio, in fact that was a band practice activity as I don't think in that 4 year period we actually did what would be considered an actual band practice. The studio was located at the principal member's place. Here we had managed to get a 1 inch 8 track machine up and working but the cost of 1 inch tape limited the amount of recording I could do. I stayed with the 4 track machines most of the time and all the music was played in live. We also had a Yamaha music computer as part of the setup but my ambient style of music didn't work well with this computer. The simplest option was always to play live and do lots of improvising. I miss the live recording element a little now as back then you were forced to do it live whereas now I'm in front of the computer most of the time.
Note to self - do more live / improv stuff.
Q: When planning Ambient, Landscape and Space - what was your original goal?
The original plan of ALS was a live performance. It was never planned as a CD and DVD release at all. There was an idea of releasing something in the form of point of sale for show goers.
Having played live in rock bands I always wanted to take Amongst Myselves to a live audience. The idea was to have three performers - my brother, Garry, on electronic percussion / keyboard; friend Bernhard on guitar synth and myself on various synth.
The reason for three people was to keep things simple. Beyond three people and you start to have problems with practice times. Even with three people it was still a juggling act when they have full time jobs.
Along with this was a large projection which is largely what is on the DVD. The idea being that the projection is what the audience was watching and the band were performing parts of the music. I had a backing track which was synced to the video.
Alas the whole project disintegrated for numerous reasons and it was decided to create a concert in your living room version of both the vision and audio. I recorded most of the original parts played by the band that were not in the original recordings and also shot the band performing two of the tracks. I spent a good 18 months from the time of cancelling the concert to releasing the CD and DVD.
It was an interesting experience. I've certainly not lost the want to do live performances but I think my approach next time would be to compose specifically for a live performance.
Q: What brief was set for the imagery to accompany Ambient, Landscape and Space?
There was no brief really. These pieces have no narrative and the music has no fixed meaning so the idea really was to create something that was visually interesting that suited the music. In a couple of tracks like "Ship of Dreams" we have created a narrative out of the music, probably because that track out of any of ALS, is a more conventional composition.
Q: How exactly did you collaborate with Bernard Haseloff and Garry Roberts?
My whole idea of a live performance is that it is live. But due to the synced images I had certain restrictions to make the performers stay in time with the images. Based on this most of the performing was a simple "here's the music to play" which was also based around the performers ability and hardware available. The exceptions are the tracks "Demon Haunted World" and "Interlude" which I let both Garry and Bernhard loose on, to do as they pleased. So to be honest the word collaborate doesn't suit the situation.
Q: What do you imagine is the future for ambient music - how do you think it can develop to remain fresh?
I think in lots of ways the freshness takes care of itself. Lots of people come and go but there are the stalwarts who change their styles along the way as well. Currently I find that we are in a more drone zone, which I really like, but what I am hearing is all quite similar and I can already hear the direction changing.
When I am not working on music I often have internet stations on but I listen in a very ambient mode which is not really listening at all. I do sometimes wonder whether this is a good thing to do though and how listening to lots of one type of ambient may be affecting my own composition choices.
Thanks to Steve for allowing us that interview.