AS: The first record I remember owning as a kid was the
soundtrack to Disney's Jungle Book. There are a lot of great songs on there,
but I can still remember the overture and the magical and mystical quality it
had and how it made me feel. As I got older I fell in love with The Beatles,
then bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who. Around the age of 15 I was determined
to become some combination of Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend. My dad bought me
an acoustic guitar at McCabe's in Santa Monica and then the following year, I
got my first electric guitar, a
beautiful white strat with a maple neck and a Marshall half stack that was way
too big and loud for me, but I loved it and it allowed me to be a rock god in
my own garage in southern California.
AV: Did you ever have any formal training in music? If not
do you think that it hindered you in any way in regards to your musical career?
AS: I took guitar lessons for about a year, but once I could
read chord charts and had enough fundamental knowledge under my belt, I
preferred exploring and figuring things out on my own. So that was the extent
of my formal training on guitar. In some ways I regret not taking it further,
but in other ways, I think it frees me to create more intuitively without
feeling burdened by structure. Later on in college I took some world music
classes which helped to broaden my horizons and opened my eyes and ears to
different ways of thinking about music .
AV: Tell me about the years you spent playing electric
guitar in rock bands. What did you learn about yourself and your music while
you were out on the road playing these live shows around the country?
AS: I played guitar in a number of different bands throughout the eighties and nineties and beyond. While going to school in Berkeley in the 1980's, I played in a locally popular band called "The Vicious Hippies." In 1988, we toured the country with Wavy Gravy (of Woodstock fame) as part of the "Nobody for President" tour. Back then, most of us were really into the Grateful Dead and like The Dead, we enjoyed stretching out into these extended improvisations when we played live shows. We were a jamband before there really was such a thing I suppose.
I really turned into a student of Jerry Garcia and his approach to playing guitar and improvising, having attended literally hundreds of Dead shows and always sitting as close to the front of the stage as possible to soak it all in. I even played in a Grateful Dead cover band at one point, called "Grapefruit Ed." (say it fast) It always amazed me how Jerry could get into a space while improvising, where it was as if the music was playing itself and he was just a willing vessel through which this magic was being realized. Eventually I got to a point in my own guitar playing, where I would occasionally enter that state and that became the gold ring I would always be reaching for musically.
I love everything about creating and performing music,
but falling into that zone, where the ego slips away and the music creates
itself is where I like to live musically. It becomes this magical, spiritual
and sacred place.
AV: So would you say that you were fairly successful as a
guitarist and that you had a steady supply of work as a musician in this genre?
So what was it about electronic music that pulled you away from something you
had done well to this point and that you were already successful at to explore
this new territory in electronic music?
AS: Around 2004-2005, I started getting tired of the whole
bar band scene and wanted to take a break. I thought I would try to channel
some of my creative energies towards recording. I had just gotten a new Mac
Powerbook G4 (laptop) with Garageband on it and thought I'd play around with
recording my guitar just to see what I could come up with. So I bought a cheap
USB interface that would allow me to record audio from my guitar directly into
my Mac. The interface came with a CD that had some guitar effects software and
a free demo version of a program called "Ableton Live." I started
playing around with it and soon got hooked. After a while I discovered various
"software synths" I could use in Live and I was blown away by the
quality of the sounds. I didn't have a MIDI
keyboard, but I could use the laptop keyboard to play these soft synths
and before long, I was creating all kinds of little bits and pieces of
electronic music just with the laptop keyboard and software. The stuff I was
doing sounded great to me, but it wasn't really going anywhere. Pretty soon I
had maybe a dozen half-finished tracks, but I was struggling to complete them
and not really finding any kind of direction and voice for my work.
AV: So was the break away from rock a gradual one or did
you take the plunge abruptly and dive into the deep end of the pool?
AS: It was pretty abrupt. I took a sharp turn away from the
world of tube amps, beer bottles and broken guitar strings and dove head first
into the world of MIDI controllers, DAWS and software synths. I still love
playing electric guitar in a band situation and do so occasionally, but most of
my musical efforts are geared toward the electronic realms these days.
AV: Ok, I've got to ask....where did the name Atomic Skunk
come from and why in the world did you choose to use it for your electronic
music efforts? And I'll be the first to admit that I was somewhat leery of the
name at first because I wasn't sure what to expect and I'll also be the first
to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the music that I found on Binary
Scenes and Portal.
AS: I don't think I'll ever live the name down. You know, I'm
always careful not to take myself too seriously and it seemed like there was
too much of that already in the world of ambient and new age music. I hadn't
quite settled in on a definitive musical direction yet and I was thinking of
other ambient musician pseudonyms I liked; Aphex Twin, Shpongle, Bluetech etc.
and figured I needed something that would really stand out, that people
wouldn't forget, something psychedelic
and a bit outrageous, kind of like a more modern version of "Strawberry
Alarm Clock" or something. So I played around with a few ideas and came up
with the name Atomic Skunk.
AV: So we have a name at this point, Atomic Skunk. What
ideas did you have for the kinds of music that you wanted to explore with this
persona and were you going for a particular genre as you started creating your
AS: Well initially, I was just experimenting. It took me
quite a while before I could put my ideas together cohesively enough to even
call it a finished track. My hard drive was littered with dozens of 4 and 8 bar
loops, random beats and weird little melodies. After 2-3 years of filling up
hard drive space with these musical experiments and really getting nowhere, I
decided to try to go in a different direction and try to create something more
contemplative and spacey, without any beats, something more in line with the
kind of music I would hear on "Hearts of Space", an ambient/space
music radio show I had listened to and fallen in love with over the years. I
loved what I heard from artists like Steve Roach, Kitaro, Steve Hillage, Robert
Rich and others, but I always thought this was the exclusive domain of esoteric
musicians with racks and racks of keyboards and tangles of patch cables who had
their own secret recording studios tucked away in the mountains somewhere. I
had never really thought I could create music like this myself. I didn't play
keyboards......I didn't even own a keyboard! Then I remembered seeing this very
cool MIDI guitar a while back, called an iGuitar and a light bulb went on over
my head. I could use something like that to drive these software synths I'd
been playing around with and maybe make some real music for a change. So I bought
an iGuitar in San Francisco, sat down and tried to write something that sounded
like it would belong on Hearts of Space. A few days later, I had composed my
first complete track, Chronoswamp, which would become the opening track on my
debut album, Binary Scenes.
AV: Tell me about the software that you used called
Ableton Live and why it helped you to realize your music when you started to
compose and record the songs that would become Binary Scenes.
AS: Ableton Live is an incredible piece of software that literally changed the way I think about music. What's different about Live, is that in addition to the traditional sequencer/horizontal timeline approach to recording, it also includes what they call "Session View," which is like the musical equivalent of an artist's palette. I can throw any kind of musical idea into it, which Live calls a "clip" and tweak and arrange it later. So it can hold a 4 bar guitar loop that I record, as well as a drum groove and a 20 minute field recording of forest sounds. Anything I record into it or drag into it from my hard drive, immediately begins looping, so I can improvise over it and create additional clips. All the while, I don't have to think about arrangement or structure yet. It's a complete non-linear approach to creating music. It's also improvisation based, so I can drop into the same zone I am in when playing guitar live and create from that same space.
Now, once I have all these bits and pieces of music on this palette so to speak, I can move them around in all kinds of different combinations. So I can listen to the guitar loop I recorded along with a cello part I laid down and loop them both against an arpeggiated synth line. I can add and remove clips, and combine them however I wish.
It's a lot like playing with musical Legos or building blocks. If you've ever seen a little kid take a pile of Legos or blocks and just start building something, without any pre-conceived idea of what it might become, then you can get some idea of how this part of the creative process works for me. Kids will tweak their creations, adding and removing pieces and building things up until it resonates with them as a finished "work." So that's the mind set I am in during this process, basically a little kid, with no adult supervision. The combination of the improvisational elements and this "building block" process gives me an almost unworldly creative freedom like nothing I've ever experienced.
Once all the building blocks are in place to the point
where it clicks with me, I can switch to my left brain and hit the big record
button at the top of the Live interface and record everything into their
traditional, time-based sequencer view. Then it's a lot of tweaking, adding
effects, editing etc. to come up with a finished track. But the journey from
first inspiration to a fully realized musical composition, is immensely
satisfying for me. Ableton Live has opened doors for me creatively that I
didn't know even existed.
AV: From the sounds of it you made quite a splash with
your first CD and garnered some great press. What were your thoughts prior to
releasing your music as to how it might be accepted and what were your feelings
after the release when you started to get some positive feedback on your music?
AS: To tell you the truth, I didn't set out to even make an album in the first place. I had finally gotten to the point where I could complete a track after finishing Chronoswamp, so I found a few online services that allow you to upload your music for others to listen and comment on. To my amazement, people seemed to really dig what I was doing. I created a few more tracks and uploaded them and continued to get some really positive and enthusiastic comments. Eventually I had finished about 8 tracks and it occurred to me that it was enough music for an album. So I created some artwork for it and called it "Binary Scenes" and uploaded it to a site called Bandcamp. Bandcamp allows you to sell your music as digital downloads, but they also allow you to give away a free 128K MP3 version of your music for download if you want to. So I chose to do that.
I posted a link on Twitter and Facebook and in a few
days, I had a couple of hundred people download the album. I started getting
all kinds of incredibly positive and wonderful comments from people on Twitter
which were really encouraging and made
me feel like maybe I was on to something. Pretty soon it started popping up on
various music blogs with really positive reviews. Then I got an email from John
Diliberto, a writer for Billboard magazine and the producer of a popular
syndicated ambient music radio show called, "Echoes." He had read
some of the blog reviews, listened to the tracks and wanted to include it on
his radio show. I didn't even have a CD to send him at the time, so I sent him
a link to download it and a few days later, tracks from my album were being
played on "Echoes." I never expected to make an album in the first
place and all of a sudden my music was being played on a nationally syndicated
radio show and people were buying the CD and blogging about it. I was pretty
psyched to say the least. Eventually it was played on Hearts of Space as well,
which really meant a lot to me.
AV: As an artist how seriously do you take negative
reviews of your music?
AS: Nobody likes negative reviews. I've been fortunate in
that almost all the press I received for "Binary Scenes" was
enthusiastically positive. I think you always need to consider the source
though and try not to take it personally. Not everyone is going to love
everything you do.
AV: So it's safe to say that your first album met your
expectations. When did you start work on your next album which will be coming
out in March 2010 called Portal and what lessons were you going to apply to
this one that you learned when you released your first album in terms of
getting the word out about your music?
AS: I waited a few months after the release, then started
writing again. I tend to let things unfold organically, so I didn't really
think of it as "starting work" on a new album per se, but just
shifting back into creative mode. I learned quite a bit from marketing
"Binary Scenes" in terms of social media and leveraging the viral
nature of the Internet, so once again those factors will play a huge role.
AV: With your first release behind you what were your
goals in terms of the music that you wanted to explore for Portal and where did
you want to go that you didn't the first time around?
AS: I definitely wanted to be a bit more adventurous. One of the major benefits of doing this all on my own is that I have 100% complete and total creative freedom. So if I want a 7 minute drone intro to a track, or 65 seconds of forest and bird noises, nobody can stop me! I'm pretty much free to explore wherever the muse takes me.
I had always wanted to try covering a Grateful Dead song, since The Dead have been such a huge influence on me musically and creatively, so I produced an Atomic Skunk version of one of their classics, "China Doll" which I'm very happy with.
I also had always
wanted to do a "gapless" album, where each track flows into the next
and about half way through writing the tracks for Portal, I realized that this could be that album.
AV: Is there a continuity to the music that makes up
Portal and if so what threads are woven among the songs that make them part of
the whole that is Portal?
AS: It's funny, I didn't set out initially with the intent to
have all these songs flow together in the way they do on the album, but about
half way through writing the music, a thread or narrative began to emerge. I
discovered these entry and exit points at the beginning and ending of each
track that suggested a way they could all fit together seamlessly like some
kind of jigsaw puzzle. The album as a whole is a kind of odyssey that takes you
from the forest to the jungles, to the ocean, swamp, desert, outer space and
then back to the forest. There are a lot of elements represented both in the
music and the field recordings that suggest a narrative and theme throughout
the tracks, but I'll leave it up to the individual listener to discover that
for him or herself.
AV: Your press releases for Binary Scenes say that you
wrote, arranged, produced and mixed that effort. Does the same apply to Portal?
How do you stay objective with your music during all the different phases it
goes through so that you get the best possible finished product at the end of
the process? Do you ever get any outside input during the creation process to
keep you on the right track?
AS: Kinda scary, huh? Yes, I did the same for Portal. I do everything except for the mastering. After years of playing in bands and having to vote on virtually every creative decision, it's really liberating (although a bit frightening), to simply take over complete control and do it all myself. And when I say "do it all myself", I mean everything including building the website, marketing and even processing orders and mailing out CDs. In terms of the music, I've developed a workflow now, where I will write, tweak and arrange a track to the point where I can do a rough mix. Then I'll upload it to Soundcloud, which is an online service that allows you to upload and share your music with others. Then I'll send out a tweet to the people who follow me on Twitter with a link to the rough mix. So instantly I get the input of 20,000+ people and these are my regular listeners and fans anyway, so why not get their input? The nice thing about Soundcloud is that it allows someone to leave a comment on a track along the actual track timeline, so someone can write: "I like how it goes into this next section here" or "maybe you should have one less repetition of this part" and the comments pop-up as I listen back to the track, so it's very helpful in that regard. Then it's just a matter of knowing what to do with the comments and how to use them most effectively in service of the music.
The one part of the process I'm not comfortable with is
the mastering. That's where I feel like I want to hand it off to an objective,
neutral person; someone who has some expertise in this realm and really knows
what they're doing, to make sure everything is at the proper level and sounding
cohesive. I've worked with a gentleman who goes by the name of Tarekith on both
Portal and Binary Scenes and he does a terrific job.
AV: How has your study of non-western music (Indonesian
Gamelan, Indian Ragas and African Drumming) influenced and shaped what you've
created with Binary Scenes and your upcoming release Portal?
AS: I studied Javanese Gamelan while at UC Berkeley and even performed as part of their Gamelan ensemble. I love the sounds and textures of the Gamelan instruments and there is a flow, particularly with Javanese as opposed to Balinese Gamelan music that almost sounds as if time is slowing down.
AS: There is a wide spectrum of music that falls into the broad category of "ambient" that I draw upon in one way or another. That includes the music of artists like Kitaro, Jonn Serrie, Steve Roach, Robert Rich on the one hand,The Orb, Aphex Twin, Future Sound of London on the other hand and a whole crop of what I think of as more "modern" artists like Bluetech, Moby, BT, Shpongle and many others. A lot of this music I first heard on Hearts of Space. All of that taken together represents probably about a third of my influences. I also draw on "progressive rock" bands like Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd, world music and then classic rock bands like The Grateful Dead ,The Beatles and even Frank Zappa.
So I write what I write and produce what I produce with
all of these influences rolling around in my head. There isn't really a
conscious effort to sound like The Orb or Steve Roach or whatever. I just
create what resonates with me and all of the musicians and artists that have
influenced me, inform what I do and show through in one way or another.
AV: How has living in San Francisco influenced the style of music that you create?
AS: San Francisco has such a rich musical legacy as the birthplace of the whole hippie and psychedelic era of the 1960's. I fell in love with all that music, from The Grateful Dead to Jefferson Airplane, Santana and on and on. In fact, I think you can trace back a lineage from a lot of modern ambient, new age and space music artists to these classic psychedelic bands.
Bands like The Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors etc, were
the first to really take popular music out of the 3 minute "radio friendly
single" format and explore lengthy,
mind expanding, psychedelic musical odysseys. Popular music has never been the
same and a lot of ambient music continues the same tradition in a lot of ways.
I found my love for ambient and space music by way of these classic,
AV: What kinds of cues did you take from Pink Floyd's
Dark Side of the Moon or the Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld in the
creation of Portal?
AS: I'm a sucker for these kinds of albums; Gapless albums, concept albums, extended tracks that go on for 30-45 minutes - I just love all that stuff. Dark Side of the Moon is probably the most famous gapless album of all time and then The Orb, Future Sound of London and others have produced similar, but lesser known albums.
I had always wanted to do an album where I could weave
all the tracks together with music and sound effects, kind of like Dark Side of
the Moon and I saw Portal as my opportunity. Weaving in and out of the music
for Portal you'll hear ambient/natural field recordings, sound effects, a bit
of middle-eastern marketplace ambience, even some fairy-tale narration for
"The Waltz of the Frog Prince." Dizzy Gillespie once said "I
don't care much about music. What I like is sounds." and I kind of feel
the same way. It's all just sound woven together in the end. I tried to throw
all of these ingredients into a big pot, stir them up, add some spices and
hopefully cook up some kind of sonically pleasing meal.
AV: To finish off the package you have some full color
artwork from Michal Karcz. How did the two of you hook up and exactly how do
you go about communicating the ideas of your music through the images that
grace the cover of the CD's?
AS: I was combing the Internet , looking for images I thought
might fit as artwork for Portal. I came upon an album cover Michal had done for
Steve Roach and that led me to his website, michalkarcz,com. Michal is an absolutely
incredible artist, who works from his studio in Warsaw, Poland. I thought maybe
I could license some of his existing work, but he actually insisted upon
creating some all new original artwork based on the music for Portal. I sent
him tracks as I finished them and he intuitively created his art, while
listening to my music. I gave him some very general ideas over email about the
kind of world I was going for, but he really embodied the essence of what I was
doing musically and created a stunning representation of it visually.
AV: As an indie artist looking to market your own music
the Internet must be a blessing for you. Do you enjoy all the interaction with
fans and other musicians that goes hand in hand with being online with your
music and how does that help you get the word out about what you do?
AS: It's really an exciting time to be an Independent
musician. An artist really doesn't need a record label anymore to market and
distribute his own music. I've built up a fairly healthy following now on
Twitter and Facebook as well as my own mailing list and I really try and leverage the whole viral nature of
the Internet and social media as much as I can. If I have a piece of news,
maybe a new track or a new CD release, I can just drop a link to it on these
sites and all my followers, fans and potential fans will know about it and can
distribute it virally through email forwarding, re-tweets and social media
sharing. It's a beautiful thing. I'm also able to maintain close relationships
with fans this way and that adds a real sense of value to the artist/fan
relationship. I think the whole landscape of the recording/music industry is
changing and the balance of power is shifting into the hands of the individual
artist. It's very exciting and I can't wait to see what comes down the pike in
the next few years.
AV: Any final thoughts about your music or about the
upcoming release of Portal on March 20?
AS: Portal is a musical odyssey, a kind of strange and
wondrous journey that reflects the essence of my musical, creative and
spiritual influences. My hope is that listeners will become immersed in this
world and find something unique and magical that resonates with them.
The album will be released as a limited edition 6-Panel Digipak CD on March 20, 2010 (The Vernal Equinox) at atomicskunk.com. Pre-orders with immediate digital download are available now. It will also be available as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon on March 20, 2010.
AV: Thanks for taking the time to talk to Ambient Visions about your music and your new release Portal. I hope you have the same success with your latest release as you did with your first. Take care.