The Sacred Ordinary: AV Talks with Paul Ellis
Into the Liquid Unknown
by Dweller at the Threshold
Appears to Vanish
Generation, Transmission, Illumination
by Dweller at the Threshold
No Boundary Condition
by Dweller at the Threshold
Paul Ellis' 1st release
(free for download at Paul Ellis' website)
AV: Back in 1977 when you first bought those European Electronic albums what was it that you heard in them that made such a difference in the way that you thought about music in general and specifically what your music was to become in the future?
PE: Actually, my first exposure to full blooded electronic music was Kraftwerk's Autobahn. I remember in '74 drawing pictures after school while listening to the FM radio stations and once one played the entire side of Autobahn and I was amazed at the sound.
I saved my allowance for a couple weeks and went out and bought it... my second album! I loved that first side but it was just another album. I continued my art and continued collecting albums, but mostly pop and rock. I changed my listening habits to Classical, Jazz and Prog Rock in high school and this was '77 when I got TD's Stratosfear, Schulze's Mirage, Jarre's Oxygene and Tomita's Snowflakes Are Dancing within a week's time. Even though I had heard Autobahn before this was the revolutionary turning point for me. For the first time I really seemed to hear the sound of infinity which is what pure electronic music has until now meant to me. It also resembled a kind of music I heard swelling up within me. I've always had a hard time describing this phenomena, but when I was concentrating on my drawings I would hear a sort of music in my head.. Sometimes while listening to other music I would hear this music in counterpoint to something else, like a record I was playing or the radio... other times just in the quiet it would be playing by itself. Sometimes it's like resonating strings. This is a very hard thing to describe without sounding new-agey, but it is a very real phenomena I still hear to this day.
So this music I was hearing in my head was very different than anything else suddenly sounded very similar to what I was hearing in these European electronic albums... there was an instant desire to play this sound. It also had a very liberating effect on me ... suddenly the realm of possibilities of what music could be opened up blowing the doors off the popular forms of music that surrounded me. Unfortunately the synthesizers of that time were far more expensive than what I could afford so I started with a classical guitar and began learning Ragtime, Folk, Classical and of course Rock and Pop music. I knew that playing music with synthesizers was what I ultimately wanted to be doing, but I came from a poor home and worked a job in high school to help pay rent and food. I simply couldn't afford something like this... Looking back this was a good discipline for me to start with. It kept me hungry for what I wanted and I had to work hard to get it. Somewhere in the mid eighties synths reached a level I could afford and after purchasing the first one I was completely gone.
AV: When you finally were able to take the plunge and pick up your first synths did you already know what direction you wanted your music to move in?
PE: The basic direction, yes. I've pretty much gone in the direction I was always thinking of.
Were you able to reproduce the sounds in your mind on the
synths right from the beginning?
Were you able to reproduce the sounds in your mind on the synths right from the beginning?
PE: Not even close! It took quite a while to learn the art of synthesis, recording, mixing to where I was happy with the results. I'm still learning of course, but there's a lot of myths about what synths can and cannot do. A lot of magic there, but a lot of work to learn it and do it right. There are some who poison the well by using the same presets over and over creating a stale sound or the band in a box situation where someone just throws up some samples, lines them up and calls it good... but various cliche traps exist in any genre you can name. Creating a unique voice is no less difficult in Electronic music than any other genre.
AV: How long did it take before you started to recognize what you were creating on your synths in relation to the music that existed in your mind?
PE: My first release that I was sure of enough to really try and push it was in 1991 called "Secret Fire" which, by the way the entire album is available for free download at my website: www.paulellismusic.com. This album got a really good review from Keyboard magazine which surprised me as at that time they poked holes in almost every album they reviewed that was even remotely orbiting the new age genre. In fact they wrote a scathing review of Schulze's "The Dresden Performance" in that same issue... which led to a nasty, vitriolic 3 page letter to me from Klaus Schulze's manager, but that's another story. I still love that album and it's the earliest one I can still listen to but being that it was recorded on cassette I don't feel right about releasing it again.
AV: What kind of learning curve was there to your becoming proficient with your new synths?
PE: Well, like anything it was pretty steep at first but over time I got things where I basically wanted them...In fact my first few synth "patches" that I created had far more creativity going on in their titles than in the sound itself... I think the first big breakthrough (after getting a synth and a 4-track cassette recorder.) was learning how to use tape sync which is how you can line up sequences and basically get far more than 4 tracks. This was in the "Secret Fire" period and it's where I finally began getting the sound deep and rich enough that I started becoming satisfied with the overall production... and here is where I first began working with slowly morphing sounds. One thing that you can always find in my music is this technique where let's say a bass part may have 5 different sounds... not all playing at once, but one emerging very slowly out of another. This, I believe, helps balance things. What I love about this kind of sequencer music... (which really stems from minimalism) is that the looping melodic phrases have a hypnotic quality that can put you in a very comfortable state of mind... the trick is finding ways of letting it organically change slowly so as not to interrupt the mood, but to keep things interesting... of course a drastic brick wall / 90 degree change can also be an interesting technique. My approach is intentionally very pointillistic in nature very much where the separate parts tend to work together to form a larger picture from small points of light.
AV: Does a person need to have some sort of musical background before they can begin composing music or is it just the desire you need?
PE: I think ideally you need both. I would encourage disciplining yourself and learning some kind of musical vocabulary before writing... and never EVER think you've arrived at some final place where you can't learn anything more.. I don't agree that it's all intuition. Like many things I think it's about balance... balancing technique with spontaneity. Technique and studying music can make for a more solid structure that will stand the test of time, but too much second guessing and analyzing can stall you right out of the starting gate... and while spontaneity allows for a certain magic. I see an awful lot of lip-service toward improvisation, which, while that is the basis of any composition... you noodle around and stumble onto something worth developing ... while improvisation is the foundation the problem I'm talking about is that I hear it being used in a lot of cases where on listening to the music I can't help but think it's become a rationalization for laziness. One of the dangers of exclusively using this approach is thinking every thing you fart on is worthy of release and perfect in itself. Most "Improvised" Sequencer music I've heard really just rough ideas that need developing. A favorite quote of mine is from Meister Eckhart "Only the hand that erases can write the true thing". I think if it's worth doing it's worth doing well. I've also seen some people come aboard because not so much of a deep love of the genre, but a feeling of "Hey, this is easy... I can do this!" Consequently there's an abundance of mediocrity... There should be a desire to do this because you love it... but I agree with the composer Ernest Newman when he says "The good composer is slowly discovered, the bad composer is slowly found out." Even though I would always recommend a good solid musical education and variety of musical experience as the way to go there are definitely exceptions to the rule. For example one of the few recent EM albums that really knocked me off my feet was Sayer's "1st Encounter" and he mentions in the liner notes that he didn't have much musical experience... but for every one album like that I've encountered there's a hundred mediocre ones that I feel would have been better off with some more effort compositionally. Melody and harmonic content seem to be the weakest point of most EM releases. The tone is there but the structure is weak.
AV: How would you define the Classic European Electronic style and why was it that you adopted it as your main form of musical expression?
PE: I prefer that title to "
AV: How long did it take after you started composing before you felt that your music was ready to release to the general public?
PE: It was about 5 years and three albums and by that I mean local release type albums... I'm sure no one's ever heard of "Listening", "When I look up" or "Tribal Machine" and I have no desire to ever do anything with these again... basically they were early cassette releases... but they were all about getting my feet wet.
AV: Is it difficult for a musician to reach that point, the point at which you throw your creations out to the wolves and see if they are accepted or rejected?
PE: Well it depends on the musician... some have skin as thick as a bank vault and some... well remember the princess and the pea fable? You have no idea how many musicians I've met who from the moment of recording their first piece start talking about releasing it on their first album... this is always a mistake. What's the rush? Keep writing music and see how (and if) it stands the test of time. If it really IS a great piece first time out well, bravo.... but this will be clear once you've been doing it for a while.
AV: Tell me about your first public release and what kind of reaction it received from those who listened to it. What creative lessons did you learn from this release?
PE: While there were a few releases I did on a small level at the time I knew that they weren't there yet and consequently didn't push them too hard. I did get some negative feedback which was actually the best thing because at that early stage it is awfully hard to see the forest for the trees, and the negative feedback helps give you an objective view of it...and you start realizing that there are elements there that you don't care much for in other's work so why would it be any different in your own? Again the first release I was pretty sure of was "Secret Fire" and it got some really good reviews which helped encourage me through some dark periods when I wasn't sure if I was just wasting my time with this... I mean there is definitely no money to be made here and not everyone is going to "get it" when it's this far left field of the more popular forms of music so when you put your heart and soul into something and spend lot's of time and money... is it worth it? These are hard questions I think every musician has to face some time or another but in my case the plant broke through the pavement and the desire to keep creating won over any resistance.
What was it that brought about the formation of Dweller
at the Threshold and how would you characterize the music that was created in
the context of the group?
PE: Well a quick history would be that Jeff Vasey and I formed
Tribal Machine in the beginning and we were both fans of the Europeans but we
were also influenced by some harder edged stuff that was happening at the time
like Skinny Puppy... so that first album we did as Tribal Machine was more
aggressive than what we later morphed into. Though even through Dweller we
were very conscious of trying to balance the lighter prettier melodies with a
rawer more aggressive sound. We definitely wanted to be distinct from the
uniformly mellow new age sound. We really just wanted a wider dynamic
range. While Jeff and I were conscious of trying to stay focused
compositionally we also were both involved with another band called Dumpster
that was basically a group of Portland Electronic musicians who liked to get
together once a week have a few beers and some smoke and pull out the synths
and completely improvise sessions... The sound tended to be more in the Eno /
Negativland found sound abstract area...and while the session were typically a
lot of fun I eventually became dissatisfied with the lazy tendencies of not
wanting to really create something solid... just creating in the moment. I
found that there was a usual ratio of 25% interesting to 75% crap. and more
often than not it was just self indulgent...but it was a lot of fun and met a
lot of people through it. One of these was Dave Fulton who came a little later
on the scene when he moved up from
After a show Jeff and I did at Echo Theatre Dave approached us about joining Tribal Machine... he also wanted to do something a little more thought out and focused than what Dumpster was doing. At first I wasn't interested in a third member, but after a while it seemed a better idea as I was somewhat frustrated with Jeff's lack of musical training. I couldn't get ideas across to him sometimes and had to constantly adapt to the level he was playing at. I have to say that Jeff is an amazing person overflowing with creativity.. a true artist on many levels who influenced my sense of aesthetics more than anyone else I had met, but I needed to work with someone I could talk to about scales and chord changes... so we brought Dave in. Initially we went on as Tribal Machine but soon changed the name to Foundation... which still wasn't right so I came up with Dweller at the Threshold. I liked that one because it meant (in mythological terms) the one who guarded the entrance to a treasure, a different world or a secret... like the sphinx. I liked the mystical connotations and I think Dave liked it because of the H.P. Lovecraft reference. It should be said that the first two Dweller albums are really mostly myself, Dave... Jeff became more peripheral at that point as he was very busy building his home and the birth of his child meant little free time... later things started balancing more with the inclusion of John Duval, a great guy that I like a lot. Though even there he appears only on a couple cuts of Ouroboros because Dave and I had so much material ready to go. I've left Dweller for the typical "creative differences" but I wish them well.
AV: How does the process of creating/composing music within a group setting differ from your normal process of doing solo work? How is it decided the style of music that the group reflects as opposed to what each individual member is currently pursuing in their solo compositional work?
PE: Usually in a group or collaborative setting it seems to be either one person brings in a seed idea which is then developed in the studio or an improvised jam starts from which an idea is hammered out, or variations on that. Mostly in EM it's not so much a group effort in the classic sense more along the line of people trading CDR's of basic tracks and then adding parts to them away from the other person. I'm afraid my experience in working in the context of EM is that for the most part the musicians involved don't have much experience in working in a group setting at least outside an improvisational structure... it's a rare thing to find a composed piece of music all have worked on together ... most people are used to the insular world of the recording studio and sometimes discussing the work in progress is a bit strained as the lack of experience with this process leads to misunderstandings... a lack of objectivity. Also I don't think EM has really developed its own musical vocabulary yet... another area that tends to be creative quicksand for EM artists is the heavy weight put on the technological rather than the creative side... in most of the other genres in the world a group effort is the norm and in my experiences with various other kinds of music I found it for the most part easier to enter into dialogue about it than EM...Of course in all music forms there is the problem of semantics and how do you really describe the sound in your head? ... Music has never been exactly easy to discuss which is why some people describe it as "Dancing about architecture", but it seems to me to be particularly strained in EM. This is definitely one area that is somewhat peculiar to Ambient / Spacemusic / Electronic forms... in that the norm is more an isolated, insular process. I've been wondering about this lately and it seems to me the pros and cons of this approach are:
Pro's- you get to fine tune a composition far greater than you could have before. It's going to be a much tighter and purer to the vision that you have in mind for the music. Every parameter can be adjusted until it's just right .You don't have to accept something you think is sub-par if you don't want to.
Cons- Sometimes someone else's approach brings the magic
touch... and in my experience the process of learning music grows in
exponential leaps and bounds when working with others...learning new licks,
chords, scales etc. Kind of a cross-fertilization that keeps musical in-breeding at bay.
Like I was saying earlier I think the key is all about
I've had a much easier time with recent collaborations like Steve Roach and Craig Padilla who, I find think in similar terms to what I do and are very easy to discuss ideas with.
We've talked about group dynamics as they pertain to creating
music but when it is just you how is it that you come up with the seed of
a new project and what kind of process do you adhere to so that you
stay on track while working on this new project?
I am actually far more influenced by Klaus Schulze and Steve Reich and tend
toward more organic structures than the kinds of pop forms that more typify what
Jarre and recent TD do.
I think it's certainly gotten easier to be near
the cutting edge of synthesis technology today then when I started... for
example I just bought the Absynth software synth for a couple hundred dollars
that has an amazing synth engine in it. One very very cool and intuitive and
musical synth and I could get some textures on it very easily where I couldn't
elsewhere. I personally like to try different tools, but most certainly not
bound to it. I could have just a Triton and a multi-track recorder and would be
confident of the sound being plenty deep.
1) You're chances of getting sex because you're playing it are not
My guess is that it will always be a fringe genre. I'm crazy for this stuff personally and it occupies a sizable chink of my listening time (Though I'm very eclectic in taste and it definitely isn't the only thing I listen to.) and I know there are others who share a very passionate love of this kind of music and I see every sign that the scene is healthier now than it has been for a long time and I think the awareness is greater too... which are all very positive signs, so I am not completely without hope for it. Also, I observe how Science Fiction was at first a tiny genre that was frowned on... it was very much underground early on. but now it occupies a fairly sizable portion of book sales because people's minds were finally opened to it... I think in many ways rock is dead and the time is ripe for a new form to emerge... maybe people will start looking for some other kind of sound or style this has happened as a means for a genre coming to prominence too, but if push comes to shove I would have to say that I don't think it will take off in a big way.. too many factors against it.
AV: Since most electronic musicians hold down day jobs to make ends meet is it discouraging to you as an artist that you can't make a living doing what you love to do?
PE: The way you worded that question? Yes, absolutely, definitely, no questions - YES!
I'm really stubborn about doing music the way I want to. This doesn't help much if you want to make money doing music commercially which is all about squeezing your muse into someone else's expectations and I think that would be unsatisfactory. Also the people I know who are doing it for a living, well their own music is the LAST thing they want to do. So I can't go there either. The best of all worlds would be someone hiring me to do film music with the "I'm hiring you to do that sound you do" caveat.
But yeah not a day at work goes by without the starving artist fantasies of spending serious blocks of time to realize my musical dreams. At this point in my life time is the most valuable thing to me. I have a lot of musical ideas I want to accomplish but I'm forced into the position of patience. You'll see a lot of turtle shaped objects if you come to our house. It's my "totem animal" I suppose. Slow and steady wins the race.
AV: Tell me about how the Internet has impacted your ability to market your music to a worldwide audience and to collaborate with a much wider variety of artists? Would the EM community exist at all in its present form if the Internet were not part of the mixture?
PE: My ability to market doesn't exist anywhere! Net or not! I have a complete lack of interest or talent in those kinds of things, unfortunately. I am just no good at it. I did at one point, but getting on the net even further eliminated it.
I'm afraid I find it repulsive when I see how much self promotion some people indulge in. I don't mind a CD release or concert announcement, but those who use mailing lists to constantly point at themselves leave me nauseated. As for connecting with other like minded musicians it has been a godsend. Before I was on the net I felt very much like an island, no one to talk to about it... and I stayed away from getting a computer for years because all my discretionary money was funneled into recording gear. I love making music with other musicians and the problem with Spacemusic is that you can't just put up a card at the local music shop and find people like you could if it were Rock or Blues. So yeah I think the net has been a great boon for any niche genre... puts us in touch with each other and I think the quality of EM I hear now is far better than it was say in the late 80's.
AV: You actually have a couple of new releases out there right now. One solo work and the other with fellow EM musician Craig Padilla, tell me about how you and Craig decided to work together on a release.
PE: Well, Craig and I met through a mailing list called Beyond_Em for electronic music and we traded CDR's and we liked each other's style very much... so at one point Craig offered to drive up from California with his gear and I took a week off from work and we had our sessions, which once we hooked up and got going it felt like a very natural fit. That's always a good feeling when it clicks like that. The funny thing is we have so much in common sometimes it seems like we're twin sons from different mothers.
AV: Is there a different dynamic to working with just one other musician as there is with working with a group of musicians? How did the collaboration you did with Craig differ from the collaboration you did with Steve Roach?
PE: The more people involved the more things you have to take into consideration increase exponentially... for some those battles to get it dialed in where everyone's happy bring a spark of magic, but there are other times when the mix isn't worth the battle. Steve has a vast amount of experience in several styles and Craig also knows enough about music that not much was needed to be scripted or planned in advance. Both cases were very organic and spontaneous.
AV: Once Craig and yourself decided to work together how did the two of you lay out the groundwork of what would become Echo System? Was there a division of who would contribute what to the project or did you work that out as you went?
PE: That was definitely worked out as we went along. Effortlessly too... we didn't do any kind of role definition before we started, just got some sequences locked up together and then just improvised from there... I would solo for a while, then he would... didn't talk about it much, didn't need to. Then once we got 5 pieces or so down it was time for him to go home so I edited the material down (Usually we let the recording go for 20-25 minutes and then would whittle down to the essential parts.) and we added a couple parts over the top later. It's been mentioned a lot that the album was two years in the making, but that's somewhat misleading in that we weren't working on it the whole time there was a fairly long interval where we let it sit, knowing that it would be finished in some form later.
AV: Both of your current CD’s were released on Groove Unlimited, tell me about how it was that you came to be on this label for The Sacred Ordinary and Echo System? Is this a long term agreement or was it just for these two releases? What involvement does Groove have in the music that they release?
PE: I have signed a long term agreement with them but with Craig we had it
adjusted where it wasn't an exclusive contract for him as he is also releasing
through Spotted Peccary. I am very happy with being on Groove.. How we hooked up
was that Ron expressed some interest in hearing what I did on Sacred Ordinary
with Rudy Adrian so when I sent him a copy he was very enthusiastic about the
music and so while at first I was going to stay with Binary after considering it
for a while I decided Groove was a better fit.
PE: I tend to like using paradox in my titles such as Appears to Vanish and to me The Sacred Ordinary is just a phrase that could mean those epiphanies where suddenly everything seems new and bright again after a long dark time. As for sacred qualities in the music I always strive for that. Depends on how you define the word, but the sacred in music is about expressing a heart quality or an interior state that is almost impossible to describe in words but can be caught in a moment through music. That's how I see it anyway. Sometimes I've noticed in mailing lists when people describe "Spiritual Music" they mean something that's mellow. I don't see that at all. In fact I think it's a small fraction of the human experience.
AV: Music generates many emotional responses in everyone according to the perceptions of the individual who listens to it, do you ever work on a piece of music with a particular feeling or emotion in mind that you would like to generate in your listeners? Or even an emotion that you would like to generate for yourself?
PE: Only every time. While there is a heavy use of looping hypnotic qualities to get this frame of mind that I like, it was always about expressing emotion not just a cerebral experience. I probably lean more towards the heart than the head when it comes to music. I like creating emotions within the framework of something with a mesmerizing quality, like hearing a quantum leap of emotions through time tied together by the underlying current. However it must be said that the style demands a certain willingness to listen before the emotions become apparent. I can understand someone who was never exposed to it not thinking there was much emotion as this is usually expressed through the human voice. Some friends of mine find Mirage by Klaus Schulze to be emotionless. I understand what they're saying even if I don't agree. I hear lots of emotion there, it just is expressed in a completely different context.
AV: Tell me how you went about preparing for your concert with Steve Roach. Did the two of you communicate back and forth until you had the details of the performance worked out and the direction that it would take? How difficult is it to bring EM music effectively to a live concert venue? Did you accomplish what you wanted to do with that performance?
PE: For the most part we did our own sets, but we had the Sands of Time which was to be us playing together... that piece we generated the day before at my studio, went through it a couple times and went for it. That piece generated a lot of enthusiasm so that was gratifying. We mostly just hung out had a good time in Portland, did some promotion and did the show... later I flew down to Tuscon and we had some more sessions about 5 of which will show up on my next album... As for the live show, no I'm not satisfied with it. Some live shows like one I did with Rudy Adrian turned out much better. I had some technical difficulties at the Roach show that could have been solved with a bit more time during the sound check. Some of the pieces were ruined, but most were OK so I put the good ones up at the website for free download as there wasn't enough usable material for an album.
AV: As we wind down this interview what can listeners expect from Paul Ellis over the next year or so? Any top secret projects in the works? I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule ( I think everyone has a busy schedule these days) to answer all my questions and shed some light on who Paul Ellis is.
PE: Well, I'm hard at work on my next album which will also feature Steve Roach, Jeffrey Koepper, Jim Cole, Will Merkle and there's some cello and wordless female vocals. Craig and I also are talking about doing another and there may be an interesting recording project with Alpha Wave Movement where a series of recording sessions would be made open for a few people to watch as a concert series. We have just discussed this so nothing is set in stone yet, but sounds like an interesting idea. I'm searching for a drummer at the moment ...always lots of things on the burner.
Well, thanks for your time and to the readers, Cheers!
AV: It was my pleasure Paul. I'm always happy to continue to bring the readers of Ambient Visions chats with those talented individuals such as yourself who comprise the EM community. Thanks again and much success with all your future projects.