Ambient Visions Talks with....Saul Stokes
2007 Ambient Visions


Saul Stokes

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AV:  Tell me about when it was that you first realized that music was going to be something that you not only enjoyed listening to but also something that you were going to enjoy creating as well?

SS:  Since about 15, I had a couple keyboards around all the time.  I was in bands pretty much throughout high school.

AV:  What was it about the inherent possibilities of the synthesizer that  caught your attention as a teenager in the 80's and led you to start creating your own music?

SS:  I would have to say it was the clean bubbly sound of early Depeche Mode or Yazz that really attracted me to electronic music the most.  At the time, a synthesizer was a very uncommon instrument so I found electronic music and synthesizers to be very alternative. I was actually in some grunge-esque Washington state bands as a synth player which wasn't common at all.

AV:  How much influence on your own musical path did the time spent in Germany have on you?

SS:  When I look back on it, I think there were two things that living in Germany opened up for me. The first was the idea that electronic music  could be pure electronic and popular without singing or in a typical pop song structure. Clubs were playing pure electronic music, stuff that wouldn't have flied over here at the time (at least in Seattle where I was living). I found it mind blowing actually. The second point was that prior to Germany I had never written complete compositions. I think this was because I was trying to do electronic music with singing and I'm not a lyricist so I struggled  with trying to write words to songs. I had a ton of half written songs but never completed anything. In Germany I really found out that you
could compose electronic music that wasn't based on any prior musical genre.  Not to say I didn't know about TG or space music etc. It was more that the music I was hearing in Germany was closer to what I was


fond of. I've actually never really been that into typical space / sequencer music even though some bits of this influence have ended up in my music. I mean, I like some of it but I'm not passionate about it. During my discovery period in Germany, I came back to the states and was able to actually create songs from start to finish. I met up
with a friend in the same position that I was and we started putting together some  techno. We started playing raves and late night parties. It was fun and gave me the inspiration to keep writing music.

AV:  Tell me about your demo Burning Igloo and the avenues that opened up for you in regards to getting your music heard.

SS:  I've been planning to offer BI as a download from my website. It's still really interesting sounding to me.  Only a couple of songs have been available publicly. Future music magazine published one track in 95 and this is how Hypnos Recordings found out about my music. Believe it or not, I still get emails from people writing me to tell me how much they still enjoy Haight Pacifica.

AV:  How did your hooking up with Mike Griffin and his Hypnos label move your music to the next level as far as establishing you as an ambient artist within the community?

SS:  I think at the time, it was still pretty special to put out a CD. People looked at a professional CD and took you for being a successful musician.  It was quite a bit easier to get people to listen to your work and easier to get reviews.  Most of all, I think what Hypnos did, was give me the avenue and audience I needed to continue to write
music. I get a kick out of people who say "I write music for me." I'm the total opposite. The last thing I want to do is listen to my own music. The greatest compliment is an email from someone telling you your music is inspirational to them.

AV:  What was your first release for Hypnos? Tell me about this CD and what you were hoping for in regards to introducing yourself through your music to the ambient community and to your listeners and fans?

SS:  My first release was Washed in Mercury and at the time, I had absolutely no idea what genre it was aiming for or what sort of person would find interest in it. I never actually thought my music quite fit in with what Hypnos was putting out.   I have 4 solo cds on Hypnos, so in a way, I guess my music was integral part of the Hypnos sound even though I didn't think it was fitting in with the other releases.  I did have a funny goal that I remember very well. I thought that after  one year of WIM being out there, my goal was to be making minimum wage off of my music. I still haven't reached this goal.  :)

AV:  Looking back on that release was it everything you hoped it would be? What kinds of reactions did you receive from listeners/reviewers in regards to this release?

SS:  I think it's still a cool set of songs today. Considering how dated a lot of music from this time period sounds, I think it still sounds pretty fresh. I look back at all of my early music and enjoy the simplicity of it. I recorded my first 4 albums direct to DAT without any multitrack so the songs tended to be simpler and less organized than they are today.  Just the result of getting older and more  specific as to my tastes so each album prior always sounds simpler to me.

Reaction was pretty good.  I remember getting a lot of reviews that specifically related the album to early Fax / Warp releases with it's own edge.  Seems actually tougher to get magazine reviews these days. The personal computer studio wasn't in full swing yet so there were far less musicians putting out CD's.

AV:  After working through that first Hypnos release and receiving feedback from listeners and reviewers about the CD were you enthusiastic about starting to work on the next release and the release after that?

SS:  Each album is a loving strain to me. Each requires hundreds and hundreds of hours between myself and my music. A very personal interaction that I find addictive, frustrating, and eventually always worthwhile. Today, I have more of an art for art's sake concept of my music. Back then, I was hoping to at some point make a living off of
my music.  It took a few albums to get this out of my creative process.

Recently, I'm more excited than ever about releasing music. The web has giving me the opportunity to create my own listener base, an  intense form of motivation. I have an ever growing group of listeners that I have a bond with. People from all over the world.  I do a lot of direct orders from my own web store. In fact, I've really never
been as excited as I am now about the possibilities that are available from the web. I really see myself as my own best source for promoting my music whereas I use to rely on labels to do this.

AV:  Do you always have a clear idea as to where you are going with your compositions/music or is it more like you don't know until you actually get underway with each new project?

SS:  I always have a very clear idea of what I want when I start each album and each album ends up being the exact opposite than what I originally had in my mind. I write down thoughts like "simple tones - mono with
spacial reverb accent" and keep them in my studio to look at but I seem to kill everyone of them during the first song of the album.

AV:  Tell me about how you hooked up with Michael Bentley and Foundry Records and when it was that the two of you decided that Vast had found a home on Foundry.

SS:  I actually met Michael through Forrest Fang. We all had dinner together one night inBerkeley.  After my album Fields, I kind of new right away I wanted to spread out to a new label. Michael and I both live in The Bay Area and we get together quite often. It made sense to have Vast come out on his label.

AV:  When did you first start work on Vast and did you have a notion of where you wanted the music to go with this release?

SS:  I start each album almost right away. I go through a good 8 months of continually throwing out songs until one pops up interesting enough to guide an entire album. It's a grueling process. It's been almost a year since Vast, and I'm only now completing my first song since this album. The first song is always the toughest because it's got to move in a new direction for me. It can't be a continuation of the last album. It's got to feel like a real jump musically and professionally. As for a direction.  I write notes to myself of how I want the album to sound. Currently, on the magnetic board behind me is the following:

warm evening lo fi tones
less sounds but each sound more fantastic
bits of rumble
shorter songs
mostly mono with stereo effect
toned drums
short parts
drastic changes within each song 

This is sort of the outline of a how I want my next album to sound.  I can't say it will come out like this but it gives me a little set of rules to work from.

AV:  I was reading on the Foundry site in the description of Vast that the music was created on your own homemade equipment (hand forged). First off, why build your own equipment? and secondly how does this help you achieve sounds that you can't get from equipment off the shelf?

SS:  I built my equipment when I was in college.  It was a simple fact of economics. It's super cheap to build your own equipment from scratch.

Not that difficult either. Prior to today's "synthetic" synthesizers, hardware was really expensive. Had I been just getting into music now, I would have never fathomed building my own equipment because softsynths are so affordable.  I'm glad I had the chance to build my equipment though, it's really what has giving me an original sound and composition.  I'm totally of the opinion that modular analog gear is far superior to what you can do on the computer. One of the biggest bummers of today's softsynths is the lag time between the controller (knob) and what the controller is set up to control (a filter for example). It's pathetic. If you don't have a history with analog hardware you probably wouldn't even notice this.  This slow response is perhaps the biggest hurdle for me. 

AV:  Who were some of your influences that fans of electronic music might recognize in the music that comprises this release?

SS:  I listened to a lot of Depeche Mode, Bill Nelson, YMO, TG growing up.  I don't know if there's any electronic musician influences on VAST per-se. I did listen to a lot of old jazz and big band stuff at that type. I've been really taking more by creative recording and mastering right now. I've been analyzing old recordings like from Coleman Halkins and other jazz greats. I'm really into mono / left / right / recording right now but I can't seem to make it work in my own music. I've been listening to a guy / band called Luomo, namely the albumVocal City. It's a great house / electronic album.

AV:  Looking at Vast from the finished side of the project what is the theme if any that runs through the music and was this something that you intended when you started work on this CD?

SS:  There's no real theme behind  Vast. It's an accumulation of what I knew at the time composition and sound design wise. I want to make really good electronic music that people really can get into. I want the music to be the same feel you get from a pop album. Meaning, it's not a background ambiance or incense music, rather great electronic music that's catchy and full of color. Sort of like syncopated fireworks. The biggest challenge is to write music that you don't imagine singing to. 

AV:  What role did Michael Bentley and Foundry play in regards to tweaking the final sound of Vast?

SS:  He played part producer, creative director, engineer. I think I had him over several times during the process of writing each song. He's the type of guy that holds art at the highest level. It makes sense to have a person like this around you. Vast wouldn't be the same album if it wasn't for Michael.

AV:  Is Vast a leap into a new musical sound for you compared to your previous releases? Considering that you were number 7 on the essential CD's list for Echoes it sounds like you found just the right groove. Any thoughts from your fans as to this release?

SS:  There's a few die hards who prefer my older work. Especially Zo Pilots and Outfolding. They would like me to continue down the path of these albums. The problem is that each album is a certain time point in life. Each had their own equipment, their own limitations. I don't like continuing a CD into several CD's. I think I said earlier I throw out songs until I have something that doesn't sound like it could go on my last album.  For some reason, between Star's End and Echoes I have a real legitimate fan base there. I was really floored at how many people came to the last Gathering Series concert inPhiladelphia. It's incredibly inspiration to have a line of people waiting to talk to you about a connection they've made with you because of your music. I think in terms of Vast, It's by far more professional sounding than anything else I've done. It's more listenable which means more people can relate and enjoy it.

AV:  Was Vast a single outing in this musical style or are you thinking about doing other releases in a similar vein in the future?

SS:  My next album, tentatively called Villa Galaxia, is going to be like Vast in terms of rhythm and complexity. There will be more percussion and more quirkiness. Villa Galaxia is just the next step for me musically.

AV:  Will you be performing music from Vast out on the road any during the course of 2007 or are you hard at work on your next release already?

SS:  Tough question. I would love to do this but I haven't found a way to play my songs in a exciting and "live" way. This is why my live shows have always existed independently from my studio recordings. It's tough to ask a crowd to watch you play a laptop and this is the only way I can see me doing actual songs from my albums. I've had an idea about actually having a small band perform the songs live. For instance, several people playing keyboards and laptops, a guitarist, drummer and a second percussionist. Something like this. This would only happen if music was my sole career which I don't see happening. Would be cool though!

AV:  Well thanks for sharing your thoughts with us about your music Saul and I wish you much success in everything you do in the future.