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…