Talks with Chad Hoefler
Twilight in the Offing
I recall very clearly how mind-numbingly awestruck I was by the sounds that one could make with synthesizers, and I can't say that those feelings have waned. So formal lessons were quite valuable (very so in retrospect), but I can't claim that they led me to the genre of music that I enjoy working in today.
However, I do often return to the key signatures that I played the most as a student of piano.
AV: Was there a particular instrument that you excelled on during these formative years?
CH: Because I stuck with piano longer than anything else, I would have to say that it was probably my best instrument.
AV: Besides music you also had other very strong interests growing up and that was biological and cosmological phenomena. Tell me about how these interests were able to shape your views in relation to your music and to sound in general.
CH: I feel very lucky that my parents didn't quash my sense of wonder as a child: quite to the contrary, it was enriched. At a very early age, I spent hours watching insects and spiders, exploring vernal pools, and gazing into space. I recall feelings of excitement when science teachers would plan for outdoors activities during solar eclipses, etc. Discovering the physics and biology behind these interests only elevated my fondness for the natural world, and it is the reason why I am a professional biologist today.
I get a real "buzz" from learning about the biota and our universe, and ambient music is an expedient for me to capture this same feeling. Music from this genre feels like the soundtrack to life and the astonishingly vast cosmos.
AV: Lots of studying and practice over the years growing up but when did you first decide that you might want to take this a step further and see what music had to offer as a profession?
CH: Releasing music is something that really took me by surprise. Over a long period of time, I slowly built up a humble home studio never with the intention of releasing material. I was simply interested in the tools that one uses to make music. I discovered mp3.com shortly before its demise and was amazed by the ease with which one could make their music available to a worldwide audience. I decided to take the plunge and take advantage of many of the conveniences offered by mp3.com; so, I suppose that it was technology that nudged me into this. I don’t consider music making as a profession, but at the same time, it feels a lot more than a hobby.
AV: Do you remember when you first became aware of ambient/space music and what kind of reaction you had upon hearing it?
CH: At a young age, I recall being very attracted to the music and sound effects used in television programs and movies (lots of cheesy sci-fi movies). I would tune in to programs often not for the visuals or storyline, but because the score gripped me in a unique way: it evoked interesting feelings and states of mind. I was completely seduced. At the time, I was ignorant of the fact that many people were working in these genres and their music was commercially available. I later discovered Tangerine Dream through their work in film. However, it wasn’t until the nineties when serendipity struck, and I discovered National Public Radio’s “Hearts of Space” program—that was a great day! I recall thinking that this was the music that I have been craving and hearing in my head for so long.
AV: I've noticed a lot of ambient artists have day jobs and seem to release music not so much to make a living at it (I'm sure they would be happy if they could) but simply to send their music out into the world and hopefully break even. Your answer sort of echoes that concept with your comment "releasing music took me by surprise". Why do you as an ambient artist want to release your music if you don't quite consider what you do a profession or a career? What is your motivation?
CH: Thinking of ambient music making in terms of something that one does as an amusing hobby or as a career is a false dichotomy: there are an infinite number of intermediate positions where an artist may fall. I suppose that I currently fall closer to the hobby end of things. For me, releasing music has been an exciting way to connect with like-minded people from all over the world. It is has been a very fulfilling adventure, one that I probably would not be able to enjoy as much if it was my sole occupation.
AV: So you discovered Hearts of Space and you had all of this equipment for creating music that you had accumulated over the years. When was it that you decided to try your hand at creating ambient music of your own and were you pleased with those initial results?
CH: After I discovered mp3.com, I put together several tracks that leaned toward the "strange" side of things and uploaded them for others to hear. I would occasionally receive comments from listeners, which encouraged me to attempt to create something more substantial. I made some ambient material available, and I received even more feedback. Mp3.com then sank. In the spring of 2003, I began work on what became my debut CD, "Twilight in the Offing", which was released on Hypnos Recordings in the fall of 2004. I occasionally listen to some of the older material, and it often makes me cringe. But one has to start somewhere--I doubt that I will ever be fully satisfied.
AV: During those early days of composing and recording did you have a "sound" that you were looking to achieve? Something that was in your head that you wanted to bring out and put down on a disc? Or was your composing more go with the flow and see what happens?
CH: I don't think that I have been chasing sounds as much as I have been chasing feelings or states of mind. However, sound is the means to that end. I really think of myself as a filter: I subject my ears to all sorts of sounds, tweaking things here and there, and if I like something, I keep it.
Serendipity plays an enormous role in the music making process. At the same time, I usually begin with a concept: on my debut CD, that concept was "inevitability". For my most recent project, "Quiet Glow", which will be released on Lotuspike, the concept was "simplicity" and "light".
AV: Tell me about how you hooked up with Hypnos for the release of your CD Twilight in the Offing and what that experience taught you about the process of taking your music from creative beginnings to final product.
CH: Robert Rich mastered the CD, and he recommended it to Hypnos owner Mike Griffin. Mike encouraged me to send him a copy of the mastered work, and he agreed to release it. This was very exciting for me, as I had been a big fan (and still am) of the Hypnos label. I learned that the process of taking one's music from its inception to an available product is exciting and requires thinking about the music in a lot of different ways. It also requires patience.
AV: Having been a part of the ambient scene for a number of years now my impressions of the relationships between label and artist is that it is much more of a flowing type of arrangement than what you might find if you were signed to Warner Brothers or CBS which is rigid and controlled by contracts and lawyers. How do you feel about the "family" of ambient labels and musicians that you are a part of?
CH: Overall, the relationships between ambient labels and artists do seem to be very good: ambient artists tend to have complete freedom with respect to their music, a quality that is likely to be hard to find with major labels.
AV: Your latest CD Quiet Glow has been released on Lotuspike Records. You mentioned that this release conceptually leans towards "simplicity and light". What does that mean to you in regards to the music that you composed for this project?
CH: I have a twofold reason for describing the music as "simple": each song is comprised of relatively few tracks and many of the songs are simple themes that build slowly, run their course, and then slowly fade away. "Light" was an abstract, musical theme for me, which is reflected in the track titles.
It was simply a means to have a common thread weave between the songs as they were being constructed.
AV: How do you know that the feelings you are trying to communicate through your music actually reach the listener in the same way that you envision them during the creation of your music? Or does it even matter if a listener gets something completely different from what you envisioned?
CH: In short, I don't. People have a lot of commonalities, and if person X finds song Y to create a pensive state of mind, others may as well. But in the end, it really is unimportant: how one is affected by music and other forms of art is often something that is personal, something that is unique.
AV: Why did you seek out Robert Rich to do some post production work on your CD's and what kind of involvement did he have in the creation of Quiet Glow and how noticeable to the listener is his influence?
CH: Mixing and mastering are two unique processes that can really make or break a recording. I don't particularly enjoy either process, so I was interested in working with someone else on this. Robert captures some of the best dynamic range and a very wide stereo image in his recordings. I also have always enjoyed how he uses equalization in the mixing and mastering process.
I had worked with Robert previously, and so it was an easy decision for me to pass the post-production duties to him. Robert both mixed and mastered Quiet Glow from audio files and notes that I provided him. It was very exciting for me, because in working with a mixing and mastering engineer, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) nuances of the music can be brought out in a way that can be surprising and refreshing to the composer. It can also be quite helpful to have a fresh set of ears attend to tone shaping, etc.
Anyone familiar with Robert's releases might detect similar EQ, volume level, sense of space, etc., but the similarities are not on a musical level.
AV: What kind of involvement does Lotuspike have with the final product that is released on the label and specifically with your latest release Quiet Glow?
CH: Lotuspike is a great team of like-minded ambient music enthusiasts and artists. They strive to be an effective outlet for musicians to make that vital connection to the listeners. Lotuspike gave me complete freedom with all aspects of the CD's production. Lotuspike president Jeff Kowal came up with the artwork, but he asked for my input and kept me in the loop constantly; there were multiple iterations before we settled on the released artwork. The label is also heavily involved in distribution and promotion: CDs are available at their online store (http://www.lotuspike.com ) as well as many other online stores, including amazon.com. The music they release is also available for download at the iTunes store. And they produce a regular podcast program. So Lotuspike is a very busy place where the owners really work hard for the artists.
AV: As you look at the music of Quiet Glow in what ways was this music breaking new ground for you?
CH: For one, the recording process was novel for me. Most of the tracks that make up each song were recorded live, and I used the first take on many of the tracks. This allowed me to capture those special moments that can be lost from MIDI editing and quantizing notes. Pressing the “record” button was never so exciting, and I was able to finish songs fairly quickly. I also felt that I broke new ground by trying to accomplish more with less.
AV: Do you view your progression as a musician more along the lines of constantly building on a solid foundation or do you think of each new project as blazing unexplored territory?
CH: A bit of both come into play. While I would feel it a waste to constantly reinvent the wheel, I don’t want to make the same record twice. I hope to always capture new ground with each project while honing my skills.
AV: Where would you place your latest effort Quiet Glow between those two choices?
CH: Again, both were important and allowed this project to come to fruition.
AV: Were you satisfied with how Quiet Glow turned out when all was said and done?
CH: Yes, but I can’t imagine being complacent. I still find it hard to listen to my own work, and on some level it is my goal to surpass my previous projects. I recognize, often with hindsight, that some things work better than others and simply press on with the journey.
AV: How has Quiet Glow been received by your listeners and the reviewers?
CH: The community of listeners of this style of music is very supportive of the artists. Nice comments have been made about Quiet Glow in reviews and by fans, and for that I am truly grateful.
AV: Do you read the reviews of your work? If so do you use them to evaluate your work at all and to compare what they thought of the music to what you personally felt the music was about?
CH: I have read many reviews and am often surprised and fascinated by the interpretations of the music: sometimes it mirrors my own intentions and other times it is quite different.
AV: Now that Quiet Glow is out as an artist do you take a break or start work on your next project? Any upcoming projects you'd like to share with our readers yet?
CH: I usually take a break to cleanse the palette. Quiet Glow was recorded last summer, and I haven’t done much since then. I am working on a new concept for a possible 2007 release, but it is too early for me to make any announcements.
AV: Any final thoughts about your music, ambient music in general or this interview in particular?
CH: Again, I would like to thank the community of ambient music supporters and artists for keeping this and related genres of music alive and interesting.
AV: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us about your music and about your latest release. Best of luck with this release and everything that comes after.