Gears of Sand:
Ambient Visions Talks with....Ben Fleury-Steiner

©2001-2005 AmbientVisions


Ben Fleury-Steiner





by Ben Fleury-Steiner



Signals from the
Great Beyond
by Oophoi





AV:  Tell me about your own musical history to start things off. When did you start playing and composing music and did you have any idea of where the road was going to lead when you started out back then? 

BFS:  I had noodled with various instruments my whole life, but it wasn't until the early 90s that I even considered composing.  At that time, I had moved in with two classical music composers who were doing PhDs atBoston University and got exposed to the world of John Cage, Harry Partch, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman,  and the other amazing American minimalist composers. Like so many other artists in the ambient genre, that stuff just completely opened me up to an entirely new way of listening to and thinking about music.  And then when I heard Eno I was, of course, hooked. 

AV:  When did you discover ambient music and how much of an impact did that make on your own compositions?

BFS:  Well, I had heard Tangerine Dream way back, as one of my relatives had one of their records.  But at the time, in all honesty, it didn't grab me at all.  I have deep respect for theBerlin school, but I am just not that interested in listening to that stuff these days, although, admittedly, I still love to listen to Rubicon now and again. Similarly, I'm also a big sucker for Vangelis, especially the Blade Runner soundtrack.  In any event, back to my own listening trajectory, Tietchens led me to Vidna Obmana who led me to Robert Rich and Steve Roach.  But in terms of the biggest influences on my current approach, I'd have to say Oophoi, Alio Die and Thom Brennan.  Both Gianluigi Gasparetti (Oophoi) and Steffano Musso (Alio Die) are, to my ears, ambient geniuses.  The long sustaining drones and natural sources they weave together to create this engrossingly thick organic textural music, sounds, to my ears, so unforced and beautiful.  Listening to their works, reminds me when making my own music not to think too hard.  It sounds cliché, but their work reveals how less truly can be more.  On the more explicitly synth-based end of things, I am just captivated by Thom Brennan's music.  His appreciation of space, very subtle rhythmic changes, and his use of building choral elements are captivating.  I literally feel warm inside when I listen to a record like Brennan’s Shimmer.   He has definitely had a big influence on my latest cd, Drifts, which is by far the most, for a lack of a better word, “floaty,” ambient music I've ever composed.  Finally, in terms of sound design, I have to mention Robert Rich.  Robert did a wonderful job mastering Drifts.  And what really impressed me about working with him was how giving he is with his time.  I mean he had this awful hand injury just prior to beginning work on Drifts, but he dove right into the music.  And once the mastering was completed, I got to talk to Robert for a couple of hours on the phone.  The guy is a true mensch and very, very supportive.  I consider him a mentor, for sure.

AV:  Tell me about some of the CD's you released as an artist before GOS and what it was like for you as an artist trying to get your music out into the public arena?

BFS:  I actually never released anything before GOS.  All of the stuff was just tapes that I made for myself.  I was experimenting a lot, especially during my trip toNepal in the late 90s.  There, I was recording Sherpa voices, sounds of wind and crunching debris underfoot.  As odd as it sounds, just listening to that stuff in my tent was quite comforting, it gave me a healthy dose of the ordinary.  And that's probably why there was a lot of field recorded stuff and samples on the trilogy of discs. . . . To the Reach the Other Shore, Chroma, and Drones for Bosal, that I first released on the label:  It was all very therapeutic.  Indeed, at the time of the trip, I had just completed a doctorate in sociology, so things were very much in flux.  I guess the sound of footsteps was quite helpful for, no pun intended, keeping my feet on the ground.

AV:  How much different was it for you as an artist to shift gears, so to speak, and become the person behind the business end of the label? Do you enjoy the business end of things as much as you enjoy creating and recording your own music?

BFS:  With GOS the business stuff has been totally minimized.  As a non-profit label, every cent made is poured back into the label to release more music.  The artists get complimentary copies of their recordings, of course, but I probably lose several hundred dollars a year.  I do this as a labor of love.  And as a full time unviersity professor with a decent salary, I can do the label as a kind of hobby, although I think that GOS bleeds into all aspects of my life and is far more than a hobby.  That is to say, it's an incredibly important part of my life that I cherish.  Of course, if I could, I would do it full time, but, alas, homelessness is not something I aspire to.  Plus, I love writing books and teaching too much to let all that go.

AV:  Is GOS pretty much you or do you have those who help you with the business end of things?

BFS:  I manage the non-profit and have begun to master some of our forthcoming releases.  I will continue to use a portion of our sales to pay professional graphic designers like Matt Borghi and Jason Sloan from Slobor Media and the painter/multi-media artist, gl0tch, to do the artwork and packaging.  I love the work these folks do, and I’m always excited to see what they come up with.

AV:  Having come at this from the perspective of being an artist first how did you want to run things differently with GOS that would be more sensitive to the needs of the artists who would end up putting out their music on your label?

BFS:  First and foremost, our mission is to release the most evocative drone musics from around the world.  But, from time to time, we will also release much more experimental works (i.e., musics in the tradition of ZOVIETFRANCE) and synth-based stuff (i.e., Thom Brennan).  The overriding objective is to represent a deep appreciation for the mysterious and always changing inertia of life itself.  And, I also might reiterate, as a non-profit committed to releasing artists' works as first priority, those who purchase gos releases are, indeed, directly facilitating the ability of the label to keep releasing more music!  So thanks for any and all support!

AV:  How do the artists who have put out their music on GOS end up on your label? Did you go out and sell yourself and your label to them or did they just migrate over to you? 

BFS:  A bit of both, although, as the label has developed its identity, I have focused more on invitation-only.  I want to create a set roster of artists who can continually release many works on GOS.  The series thing was a fun way to start, but I like the idea of the label being a home for artists to grow and develop together.  I think the label will become more interesting in this way.

AV:  Who have been some of the artists who have released on GOS and what kind of relationship do you have with them as a label owner? Do you feel like you can speak more to their needs having been in the same place as they were?

BFS:  Oh totally.  In fact, many of the folks who have released stuff on GOS have their own labels.  For example, Stephen Philips (Dark Duck Records) was one of the first to release something on GOS (GOS#5 Placid Repose currently out of print) and he has been doing this for nearly two decades.  And Gianluigi Garparetti, the artist known as Oophoi and operator of the prolific Italian label Umbra Records, just released a wonderful disc, Signals from the Great Beyond, on GOS.   At the same time, we have released works by newer artists like dark ambient provocateur Netherworld (GOS 10 Six Impending Clouds).

AV:  So what unexpected challenges have cropped up since you opened your doors and put out your first release? Anything bad enough that gave you pause as to why you set out to do this in the first place?

BFS:  Never.  But I have learned that I cannot do everything by myself.  I’m simply too busy with professional commitments, so I no longer do all the packaging of discs in-house, but, instead, use an outside vendor to handle it.

AV:  On the other side of the coin what have been some of the unexpected triumphs you have experienced since this venture got under way?

BFS:  It’s surprisingly all good.  But I am very pleased that we have 30 people who have joined our group list.  That might not be a lot, but these are truly committed members of the GOS community.  In all honesty, I was blown away that one person joined our Yahoo Group!

AV:  As a state of the union address how would you rate GOS as a business entity to date? Are you satisfied with what you have been able to accomplish so far?

BFS:  I’m really satisfied.  For the future, I’d like to play music out live more.  There will be GOS discs released in early 2006 by Aidan Baker and Alan Bloor (aka Pholde) two members of a great community of ambient and experimental musicians called The Ambient Ping based inMontreal.  I am hoping to conspire with them soon.  And I also have plans to release works by two artists, Mikronesia and William Fields, from my neck of the woods (Wilmington,Delaware), so I hope we might develop a more public profile for GOS around here.  I’d love to see GOS turn into something like The Ambient Ping; a regular series of live performances to compliment the steady flow of new releases.

AV:  Looking ahead for GOS what would you like to do with your label in the years ahead that you are not currently doing?

BFS:  In addition to building a performance community, I want to keep growing the listener base and to keep releasing great music from as many artists from around the world as possible.  I look at my friend, Daniel Crokaert, who runs the Belgian based label,Mystery Sea, and I’m just amazed at the global scope of that label.  He has released very drone-centered music by artists from literally all over the planet.  GOS has done releases fromItaly,Croatia (Na-Koja-Abad), and theU.S.  But I’d like to keep expanding things in the coming years.  There must be some killer Luxemborgian drone musicians out there!  Are you reading this?  Send me some music to listen to.

AV:  How will technology affect you in the coming years as far as distribution goes? Will we always have a piece of shiny plastic in our hands to play with or will that be replaced someday with a digital facsimile of the music?

BFS:  As far as I’m concerned, GOS will always release discs.  I am too much of a collector myself to stop releasing material packages with high quality artwork.  We will probably offer digital downloads of all releases as an option in the future, but we will never altogether stop releasing “shiny plastic.”

AV:  Any closing comments you'd like to make about GOS that I did notcover with the rest of the questions?

BFS:  Yes, I think that Gears of Sand represents a new generation of DIY independent ambient labels.  That is to say, labels run by people who are totally obsessed with the music above ALL else.  We are a community who love and respect the ambient genre, but, above all else, we want this music to be made and shared.  To that end, I think a new ethos—very much like the punk rock ideology—is what drives us.  We are not in this to make money, but to ensure that the music can be heard by anybody who wants to hear it.  There are a terrific many of creative artists out there who shouldn’t have to be kept on the side-lines for years waiting for their music to be released.  I mean, I look at a label like Slobor Media, and these guys are totally DIY, yet they release some of the most beautifully packaged, high-class music imaginable.  In fact, I’d like to end by listing just a few of these labels (and their web addresses) that I think reinforce this point and I would consider to be representative of this new DIY ambient generation:


AV:  Thanks Ben for chatting with me about your label and what you are up to. I wish you much success in the years to come and I hope that Gears of Sand is able to continue being a source of great music.