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The Speed of Silence
AV: At 17 you were already
composing music and setting your musical career on course with your first album
Ascension. Where did this love of music and this desire to be a musician come
from at such a young age?
CW: My passion for music was initially sparked by overhearing Tubular Bells playing in my mother’s workroom (she was a dressmaker) when I was just a child, and also from my father demonstrating the wonders of his Quadraphonic hi-fi stereo by playing his LP of Oxygene. Sure enough, both of these early musical moments planted their seeds, but in actuality it was probably the years I spent aimlessly
noodling about on the family piano that led to my first actual tunes emerging, which ultimately became some of the tracks on Ascension, and some of the other albums I released in the 80’s (including Legacy, The Speed of Sound and Ionospheres). However, I must admit that I didn’t specifically have an intention to become a musical artist. I just loved those sounds! And I wanted to create my own, so I arm-twisted a few friends to buy some early bits of gear and we formed a couple of experimental music groups. And
they were pretty experimental I can tell you! I still have a few cassettes of our early attempts, and some of them aren’t that bad! Relatively cheap recording equipment was just starting to appear on the market, so it was a great time to get started. At any rate, I believe my music career was born out of my passion to explore sound, rather than music itself.
AV: Once Ascension was
finished and was released what were your thoughts as to what your next musical
step would be and how did you take that next step and the many subsequent steps
that followed after that with each new album? Were you setting your course or
was the creativity and the momentum of the first album pulling you along?
CW: Actually, I am sad to say my experience post Ascension was not good at all, as I made the mistake of selling all of my future royalties back to the record label for five years, in return for a slightly bigger advance (so I could buy another keyboard). That one decision probably altered the course of my life, as I struggled in near-abject poverty for more than five
years whilst the album sold world-wide.
Cliff's first studio set up
In addition to the lack of funds, the record company didn’t forward any fan mail to me either, so I ended up feeling totally disconnected from my first album creation for a very long time afterwards. Saying that, this thankfully didn’t stem the flow of creative ideas. After all, I did have an 8 track studio, and when sampling kicked-off in the early 80’s I got massively into that, which led to my second album ‘Spring Fantasy’.
Obviously, each album has its own story, which would be too long to go into here, but in general my process is usually either (a) come up with a really good album concept and see if I have any tracks that fit it, or almost fit it, or see if I can come up with something that does or (b) listen through to the tracks/ideas I already have and see if I can fit a concept to it, or make changes to them so that the concept fits. So there’s usually a concept somewhere at the heart
Following that, I know there is going to be a period of hard work, so I treat it as such, setting myself goals (which are constantly broken) and deadlines (that are continually exceeded) until I reach what I would call ‘the point of no return’, a kind of mystical place where I know for certain that the album is going to get finished! From there, it’s a little like riding downhill, with a rather unpleasant bit at the end where the bike gets stuck and you have to walk the
rest of the way, hot, exhausted and ready for a nap! I’ve done fifteen albums now, and the experience is usually much the same. Still, at the end of the day, it’s immensely satisfying to complete an album and sit back and enjoy it, especially on a nice pair of headphones within a few feet of a wide rolling ocean!
AV: Tell me about the
instrumentation/electronics you use for your music and how you use those tools
to take the inner inspiration for your compositions and bring them to life in
the recording studio?
CW: Well, in the early years I had a fair bit of gear – keyboards, synths, a multi-track recorder, mixer etc, but over the years, as I am sure you already know, technology has exploded in ways we couldn’t even imagine, and in the past few decades my studio has whittled down to just a PC and a controller keyboard! With my simple setup I can now create many more layers of sound and music with far greater sophistication
than I ever could in my old home studio. In my opinion, there has never been a better time to create music, because the sound an artist can create is now virtually unlimited, and yet the technology itself costs next to nothing! Plus, an artist can now release and distribute their music at (almost) zero cost. The only problem now boils down to the marketing – how do you get your music out there and build a fan base? Luckily, platforms like Facebook and YouTube provide the means, but you have to put the hours in!
AV: What is it that you
personally derive from creating your music that has nothing to do with
releasing it to the public or getting some monetary return on what you release?
Why do you compose?
CW: Well, apart from saying something trite like ‘it’s what I do’ (which is true, but probably unhelpful) I would say foremost that I like to listen to music which is powerful, emotional, sad or joyous, and that has clear overtones of spirituality or love. Whilst there does exist some music that contains those qualities, I would say that tracks like these are still rather thin on the ground. Certainly
Vangelis has created a fair amount, and there are elements of these qualities to be found embedded within the music of other artists, but I must admit, I do find myself seeking out more of it (and often not finding it) which spurs me on to create my own. I marvel at how music can transport me to strange and beautiful places, to evoke unusual and mystical moods, to speak to me about times and places that I have never visited (or don’t consciously remember) and this fascination drives me on to explore these audio
terrains for as long as I am able.
AV: While music is a large
portion of your output you have many irons in the fire when it comes to career
paths. Perhaps you can enlighten our readers as to what else you are involved
with in the digital world other than the music which is oftentimes front and
CW: Well, everyone has to pay the bills don’t they? Making a living full-time out of music is a very tough call, and as I wanted to continue to work within a genre of music that is hardly pop-charting material, I realized that I had two choices – ether ‘sell out’ and write pop music, or develop another career alongside music. I must admit that I did (albeit half-heartedly) try
selling out, but it didn’t last long as I quickly realized that I really wasn’t cut out for pop music, and film music generally tends to be scary or dramatic rather than uplifting and spiritual, so that was me out again. Ultimately, breaking off into another career seemed like a sensible choice, and as I was already fairly familiar with computers (I had an Atari ST running my sequences in the studio for a while) I commandeered the computer and started a web design business. This grew into a much larger business,
eventually relocating to Elstree Film Studios where I had nine staff members producing websites for a variety of companies. That in turn evolved into a training business, where we taught companies of all sizes how to create and market their websites, and that version of the business went great guns until the recession kicked in around 2009 and we almost lost everything. Nowadays I still teach and build websites, but on a more limited basis. As far as I am concerned, music is my path from hereon in!
AV: Your output has been
steady over the years with quite a number of albums to your name but now in
2019 the dam seems to have burst when it comes to albums released. Let’s talk
about your Synergy Series of albums that have come out in the past couple of
months. First off tell me about the genesis of the idea that this musical story
that you were inspired to tell could not be told in a single release.
CW: I had been collecting up musical ideas on my computer for a couple of decades, but finally around 2014 I sat down and went right through my hard drive, compiling together all of my tracks into genre types. Once I had reviewed every idea and thrown away the weak ones I realized I still had over 20 albums of unfinished material! Once I’d recovered from that shock, I realized that I needed to increase my output
significantly if any of this music was going to see the light of day, so around 2018 I decided to set myself a seven year production schedule, which I have started now. The schedule is 4,2,4,2,3,2,3 of which the first four albums were the SYNERGY series, so next year I am planning to release a different set of two (which will be called ‘Ice Age’), and the year after that, a set of another four (more on that below…)
AV: When you came to the
conclusion that this was going to be a multiple album kind of release did you
consider releasing it gradually over the course of an entire year?
CW: I did consider that, yes, as it is fairly unusual for an artist to release multiple albums at the same time, But then I figured “Why not!” Things are very different in the digital era. People buy tracks instead of albums. People stream music rather than download it. People make playlists of the stuff they like, so my music can often be mixed together with those of other artists.
So in other words, the concept of releasing an album a year, or every two years, could in many ways be considered somewhat out-of-date. Based on that logic, I realized that there’s no real reason why I SHOULDN’T release more than one album at once, or indeed four at once (or even more!) if I wanted to. I mean, who would actually be upset if I did? Plus, it would mean I could move on with my other musical projects more quickly, thereby increasing my output and covering more ground in less time. So in the
end, I couldn’t think of a good enough reason NOT to do it that way!
AV: Synergy is defined as “the
benefit that results when two or more agents work together to achieve something
either one couldn't have achieved on its own”. What is the synergistic
relationship between the compositions found on the four separate albums? In
other words what is it that they achieve together that they could not have
achieved on their own?
CW: Well, for one thing, I wanted the SYNERGY series to be a reflection of all of the types of electronic music that I so adored when I was growing up, which, in the end, I realized was going to cover a lot of ground! Jarre, Vangelis, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream for certain, but also some of the more obscure artists like Perrey and Kingsley (electronic artists who created some wild, crazy and funny music
in the 60’s) plus a smattering of 80’s influences such as The Human League, Howard Jones, Depeche Mode and Yazoo. Between myself and those genres exists the ‘synergy’ of which I speak, a relationship that has resonated through the years, and I am sure there are many people of my generation who will know what I mean by that. Also the word SYNERGY sounds quite synthy too, doesn’t it?
AV: The albums are entitled
Waterworld, The Speed of Silence, Robot Dawn and Cityscape. Tell me a little
about the concept/title behind each album and what threads they have in common
and how they support and extend one another working in conjunction with one
CW: Well, I’d like to claim that the whole thing was intentional, but it wasn’t really. As I was working on the tracks, they started to flow together into groups, and as I already knew I wanted to open on a gentle note with some Oxygene/Equinoxe type stuff that I had, that leant itself ideally to the ‘Waterworld’ theme, and from thereon I could build up the
beats through the series whilst aiming to end on a high-note. I also had a collection of ‘robot stuff’ that I had written over the years which had never seen the light of day, so the SYNERGY series seemed like an ideal home for that concept. Plus there were a plethora of other funky/dancy electronic tracks that would fit the series as well, so I had those on the back-burner. In the end, it proved to be a major juggling act to work out what track was going to go where, and I spent quite a bit of time trying to
get the flow right between tracks and albums. I had also set myself two goals: each album should have one more track than the previous one, and each album should be over 70 minutes, all of which I finally managed to achieve, with a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears! Mainly because, at the end of the day, I really do like to give people value for money!
Cliff is the proud father of these 4 newly released albums
AV: Logistically it must have
been difficult to be working on four separate releases all at once. How did you
manage to keep each project separate while you were working on them or maybe
perhaps you were working on them as a whole?
CW: Actually, it was a lot easier to do than I thought. Whilst working on a track, one can get tired pretty easily. I mean, let’s face it, after you’ve heard the same couple of riffs for a few hours you really can’t think straight anymore. However, I discovered that by hopping between lots of different tracks (the more the merrier) it actually became easier to finish them. That was
a revelation! The more tracks I had, the more hopping I could do, and, whilst four albums presented quite a challenge to finish (especially at the end of the process, when I had really had enough of the workload and just wanted to FINISH it already!) it actually was a refreshing experience, and the hopping process allowed each track to influence each other so that a coherent, cohesive sound began to emerge between all of the albums as a whole.
AV: Now that the albums are
all released how do you feel about the finished material? Were you happy with
how all of the compositions on four separate albums flowed together and flowed
CW: Yes, I am really pleased with the result. I would say that I am 98% satisfied with the whole album set. Upon reflection, there are a few odd places I would add an extra sound or two - a drum roll here, the odd second melody line there, but they would mostly be tweaks and minor improvements that quite honestly no-one other than me is ever going to notice, so it doesn’t worry
me too much! Some years
ago I addressed within myself this idea of perfection: I had always strived to make my tracks as perfect as possible, often spending weeks honing and crafting sounds to get as close to the ‘ideal’ as I possibly could. Whilst that process was educational, it was both time-consuming and tiring. Then a couple of years ago I reasoned with myself that ‘things do not have to be perfect’, and that idea became a revelation to me, along with this idea of ‘embracing imperfection’ and finally ‘perfect imperfection’. Obviously,
a lot more could be said about these ideas, but the bottom line is: ‘our universe and our lives are not perfect, so why should our music have to be?’, along with ‘music is more fun and spontaneous if it has some human imperfections sprinkled into it!’ The idea of imperfections, and of accepting them (and even welcoming them) into my music really opened up a whole new way of working for me, allowing me to finish my tracks much more quickly. I mean, at the end of the day, who really cares if I used cymbal X or
cymbal Y at the end of the track? Who is really going to notice?
AV: Do you think you’ll ever
attempt this again in the future if your creativity demands that this much
music be released at once?
CW: That’s an ironic question because next year I am planning to finish another four volume epic series entitled ‘The Beach’, which I plan to release in 2021. As with the SYNERGY series, The Beach is a collection of fresh new ‘Chill-out’ beach music that I have been working on for a few years. And that’s not the only set I have planned either. In fact, as I mentioned before,
my workload is 4,2,4,2,3,2,3 so that’s going to keep me busy for a while! On top of all that, I am a bit worried about what I am going to do with the extra few albums that have recently crept into the
AV: Well you've just released some great music with your Synergy Series and it certainly sounds like you have more than enough to keep you busy for years to come and enough to keep your fans listening for the next decade or two. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and sharing with the readers of Ambient Visions your ideas on your music and what it all means to you. Very best of luck to you in
the future and we look forward to listening your music for the foreseeable future.