The first time I came across John, I was Googling some information about what are considered the ‘best’ ambient music albums so that I could add to my CD collection. I came across one part of an online discussion on a Ning site called Relaxed Machinery about personal favourite ambient music albums. In this post, John spoke very highly of an album called ‘Ars Lucis’ by Max Corbacho. After discovering the beauty of ‘Ars Lucis’ for myself on the strength of his recommendation, I kept John’s name very much at top of mind for a future chat…
TVE: Hello John. A few years past, I remember coming across the Ning community site for AtmoWorks and recall that you were involved in that. Is there a relationship between AtmoWorks and Relaxed Machinery?
JKN: There’s a connection. I was a co-owner of AtmoWorks for about 18 months or so and was very much involved in the Ning community we built. It might be easier to back up a bit with a quick bit of history on it.
AtmoWorks was founded in the late 1990’s by James Johnson and John Strate-Hootman (aka Vir Unis). John and I go way back to when we were in high school: we grew up in central Illinois, played in bands together and ran with the same group of friends back in the 1980’s. By the end of 2007, James had been working hard on many sound libraries for Sonic Foundry/Sony (etc) and decided to pull out of AtmoWorks. He asked me and another person, Matt McDonough from that group of friends back in the 1980’s, to co-own the label.
While at AtmoWorks we launched the Ning community and shifted to releasing a lot of new artists and, most importantly to me, I met Steve Brand and Geoff Small and several other artists that became good friends. Both Steve and Geoff supported AtmoWorks so much as customers that I eventually asked them to help me with the releases. Steve is a professional graphic artist and Geoff is highly skilled in business and organization. Both have the deepest love for music, which meshes so well with me.
So, in June 2009 AtmoWorks and I parted ways. We simply had different visions of where to go next and how to run things, and that’s ok. I started ramping up the idea of Relaxed Machinery in July, with help from Steve and Geoff, and creating this idea of a label that’s more of an artist collective self-releasing together. Steve and Geoff continued to work both with AtmoWorks and with me for a long time, but eventually shifted to just Relaxed Machinery as time went on.
Relaxed Machinery launched its first album in January 2010 with Steve Brand – Circular Scriptures. We launched the Relaxed Machinery community in March 2010. Originally it was going to be label-centric, like the old AtmoWorks community was, but almost immediately it felt wrong to limit it in that way and to be like a ‘one topic island’ community; so by working with Darrell Burgan, who was also wanting a community for his StillStream radio (he’s since turned that over to electro-music.com), and his awesome Earth Mantra label, we made Relaxed Machinery Ning a place open to all labels and all artists, and didn’t limit it to just music. Creating is creating no matter what tools you use.
The community has been wonderful and many many artists have joined. Some post a lot and some lurk behind the scenes. It’s truly a great place and I’ve gotten a lot closer with artists I’ve known for many years and met many I hadn’t run across before.
TVE: I like the idea of the community driven label. If nothing else, the internet has certainly blown wide open the doors of communication on a global scale. There’s a lot of music ‘out there’ of course, and greater access to technology has created an entire network of ‘bedroom producers’. What do you think of this – the upsides and downsides?
JKN: I’m going to end up writing book length responses to these questions! A lot has changed in music, communication and connections between people to allow a label like Relaxed Machinery to exist, and it keeps changing and evolving so quickly. I first really got online outside of work around 1995/96. Usenet was a wonderful place back then to connect to other artists and fans of music I liked. Where before there were just a few people who’d even heard of half of my music collection near me, I now connected with like-minded people in all those areas around the world. As the internet has become not only mainstream, but to the point of being something almost taken for granted as a part of communication, it’s easier and easier to connect to people who like the same things I do.
In music, yes, technology has lowered the entry bar for recording, and so far that it’s almost to the “anyone can do it” level; and that’s a great thing. Anyone with a computer and software can write, record and post their music online and make it available to the world. I like to think of this as fundamentally good. Yes, of course there are tons of albums out there that are maybe not ready to be posted, and that’s why reviewers and pod-casters (etc) are the taste-makers right now. If they find something good in the mass of releases then it’ll find its way in front of a few people.
We created Relaxed Machinery as an artist collective / label; a way for us to band together and bring focus to the music released by the artists. I think it’s easier right now to get noticed as a label than it is for a solo artist releasing individually.
Also, technology has allowed rM to be run like it is. I found it so frustrating to deal with the accounting and finance issues working with previous labels. It was my least favorite part. Getting new artists, new music, promoting, connecting with reviewers, connecting with fans – that’s what I personally love! So I made a very early decision: rM as a label would not take any money from any of the artist’s solo releases. I’d host the website, and the artists, using today’s technology through sites like CD Baby, iTunes and Bandcamp (etc) would upload and pay for their own releases. We would create a brand through consistent graphics, image and message, and the artists would receive every sale they made.
TVE: I’d just like to go back to something you said earlier: “Creating is creating no matter what tools you use”. What is the creative process like for you?
JKN: I have a couple of main ways I write, and then sometimes I impose ‘rules’ to force myself outside my normal box.
I am primarily a player. So many of my songs start on the piano in my living room. I like to sit and improvise around ideas, turn off my brain and let go. Turning off my brain is a big key with me. When I’m in my studio I’ll take some of these ideas and translate them into a recording. Sometimes it’s one melodic line or a chord progression, but that’s what kicks it off. I finally bought an 88 key controller about a year or so ago, so I’m thrilled to actually have weighted keys. I use that as a controller for sounds in Logic. I’m not really huge on softsynths yet but I’m getting there.
I record in Logic, usually track by track, and record what I play live as audio if it’s a hardware synth, bass, guitar or trumpet. I’m starting to sequence a bit now that I’m using softsynths. I still treat everything as one track / one take. I’m just a live player.
The other main approach I have is totally opposite: I start with sound sculpting, either through synth, bass, guitar or my modular analog (etc) and then record layers into Logic.
Honestly, I haven’t recorded a ton of music since I made the big giant switch to Mac / Logic for a variety of reasons; main one being that my studio is in boxes as we’re moving to another state. I’d been on PC / Vegas / Sound Forge / Fruity Loops / Rebirth for so so long, but after I had multiple PC crashes I decided ‘to heck with it’ and went all Mac. Not that Mac is perfect, but I haven’t regretted the change. Logic is massive though… 🙂
My wife bought me a guitar for my 40th birthday – and WOW – I love that! I’ve been playing piano since I was 5 and bass since I was 19, and while I can play guitar, it’s not 2nd nature for me so it’s a new exploration. I do love ‘feeling’ the instruments, whether it’s keys or knobs or strings, so most of my music is based on non-computer type instruments.
On the other hand, I do toss all that out and force myself to live within a particular box: record only using a drum machine or record without using my favorite gear, for example. Self imposed limits and rules help me learn new techniques. These experiments sometimes end up in recordings I release, but most often end up in the archive for just my ears and maybe a few close friends.
TVE: It’s interesting when you talk about ‘turning off’ your brain. Sometimes, I find that approaching the creative process with strong intent only interferes with it. When you ‘turn off’ your brain, what is it like? Do you let go of certainties and strong intent?
JKN: It’s really strange because just this week I heard a piece on NPR (National Public Radio here in the United States) on creativity. Many aspects were covered: the “ah ha!” moment of inspiration many people have while taking a shower and also the nose to the grindstone and power through things and work through the blocks type of approach, among others.
Also discussed was how they’ve looked at brain scans of musicians and comedians who do a lot of improvisations. They literally ‘turn off’ a portion of their brain that controls the inhibitions and the things that keep adults acting like adults: manners and such. It’s subconscious, but removes that layer of thinking things through before saying or doing things and just doing them. I found this all interesting.
In any case, I’ve been playing since I was 5, and once I reached a certain level of proficiency with an instrument, I’ve found that not thinking so much is key. Thinking gets in the way with creation for me. My fingers know what to do, so it’s a matter of channeling those thoughts and ideas out.
Does it always work? Oh wow, oh heck no! Of course not. And sometimes no matter what, I can’t stop thinking…but admittedly, this is just the “creation” part and there’s still iteration after iteration to go. I try hard to strike a balance between a more ‘free’ improvisation live performance and a polished piece. Too loose and it sounds immature and only half baked – too polished and it’s cold and distanced from the spark that started it all. The real ‘work’ is after the creation part (the fun part) is over; although I find the whole process ‘fun’ in all honesty.
OK, you asked what’s it like…I can do this the easiest when I’m playing piano, and it’s kind of like finding this magic place where there’s nothing else in the world except the piano. My wife can always tell when I’ve gotten there, because I’m not worried about anything and I play more fluidly and my whole body is into it. There’s just nothing else except the music. It sounds so completely cheesy to type this, but it’s like I’m one with the music and the music is one with me; the piano is an extension of my thoughts.
I’ve had this happen with bands, but that’s extremely rare because multiple people are involved or an audience is involved, and to have all of those elements sync into the same sort of universal stream… but when it does? Wow. Simply, wow.
TVE: Karl Marx once said: “The realm of freedom actually only begins where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.” In terms of being creative, what is ‘freedom’ for you?
JKN: I’ve never read much of Marx so I’m taking that statement on it’s own away from his other writings. Marx seems to be saying that you can only truly be free once the basics, the necessities of life, have been taken care: food, shelter and love. How can you be ‘free’ if you’re starving? How can you take the time and energy to create something if worrying about food, water and shelter consume the day? Then again, it seems that even in areas of the world and in history where things are completely miserable, art and beauty still survive. Maybe I’m thinking too much on this one. I’ll ignore Marx and just talk about creative freedom.
If I’m writing for no one except myself and close friends, I can be as free as I want. I have a day job I like that does not involve music, so I’m not trying to make music the thing that pays my bills. That’s a major layer of freedom right there. I’m not scrounging to play gigs whenever I can to make a few bucks to eat, and so in essence I just agreed with Marx’ comment. My work is not tied to my music. There’s no necessity to it to do anything other than be what I create. This is very freeing.
Also, the technology of today allows me to be very free. I can upload my music almost anywhere for very little investment upfront, or make it totally for free and simply share the music. Prior decades pretty much required a label and a host of marketing rules and someone producing an album that had their eye on what would sell rather then what made me creatively happy.
The cost of technology now is also very freeing. Where in the 80’s I had to rent a 4-track cassette for a weekend and I’d have to save up for that, now I have a massive recorder in my iMac with software that does so many things I don’t know where to start. I’m older now and so have collected gear over the years. I have hardware synths, basses, guitars and my trusty trumpet and acoustic piano; things I could only dream of two decades ago.
I can simply turn on my studio and write. Granted, I *want* people to hear my music, but there is no *necessity* to them hearing it. Am I making sense or rambling?
TVE: It all makes sense 🙂 Maybe it was a little unfair for me to throw that quote at you, since Marx is viewing life through a distinct political lens. I was really trying to address the relationship between time to create and time dedicated to survival of the body. You do raise the point though that technology has created a situation where musicians of any stripe can simply upload their work and share it with many people from all over the world. I think it’s easy to take that for granted sometimes, but it does represent a change in the way we interact with music and in relationships of power between those who hold the keys to entry (the big record companies) and those who create the music.
JKN: Not unfair at all! Just threw me off a little and frankly, that’s ok. I do think there’s an underlying need for some people to create, so no matter how bad the circumstances they will still do it; even if no one sees or hears it. Some people are just wired that way.
But yes, the music industry is changing. Not for everyone, but for people that love music and love the pursuit of it and collecting and listening deeply there’s an entire world of music that isn’t through major labels. There are entire communities of netlabels and independents finding ways of releasing through archive.org or CD Baby or Tunecore or Bandcamp, and it’s a tidal shift that will take a little more time to fully change larger scale labels.
TVE: How important is an audience for you? Does the thought of an audience for your music motivate you to compose, or would you compose in the absence of an audience?
JKN: You keep asking good questions. Yes, I hope people listen to my music and I hope I reach lots and lots of people. It’s amazing to get an email out of the blue from someone who says they like my music. I know it almost sounds cliche, but I really don’t write for people besides myself. I’m selfish. I have written for my wife, but that’s different. I write what’s in me, the things I want to express, the feelings, emotions and connections. I truly hope others like it and connect, but I don’t write it specifically for any particular audience. That’s kind of going back to the earlier question on freedom. I’m not making a living off of music; it doesn’t feed me and so I can be selfish. If I was trying to ensure I sold ‘x’ number of albums, then yes, I might be writing for a target market.
This kind of leads into the next question and my new venture, which frankly, is targeting specific audiences and trying to fill needs and niches. I would very much like to ‘sell’ and make money from that venture, so we have two different answers here. My personal music, which is typically ambient or minimal techno, and my sound library work, which is what’s called for by the market.
TVE: I believe that you have something new and exciting in the pipeline?
JKN: I have several new and exciting things in the pipeline: wonderful new releases on my ambient label, Relaxed Machinery, from Steve Brand, Chris Russell, Robert Scott Thompson, Andrew Lahiff and Zero Ohms. Eventually there’ll be a new one from me. I haven’t released a full album in years now.
It’s the other project in the pipeline that’s finally going public: Circling Crane. It was created by James Johnson and I’m partnering with him. Essentially, I am learning the ropes from him for sample libraries and working with libraries intended for film and TV. This is truly exciting and something I’ve wanted to do for many years. I’m grateful to James for ‘pulling me in’, so to speak.
James is not only an amazing ambient musician, but he’s been doing composing, soundtrack and library work in that industry for over a decade or more now.
Here’s our “about” page to give people an idea of what Circling Crane is and some of James’ credits:
About Circling Crane
Circling Crane specializes in world class, vividly composed, sonic environments, background ambience & thematics. Our royalty free, extended length materials, feature high definition field recordings, electro-acoustic soundscapes, found sound collage & analog modular processing. From contact mics, boundary arrays & hydrophones, to vintage sampler processing, boutique pre-amps & analog tape, no recording process is considered taboo. Circling Crane provides highly original eclectic products for film, video, gaming, post production & sound design.
Sonic Foundry • Madison Media Software • Sony Creative Software • NPR • The CW Network • Fox Searchlight Pictures • Nike • Chanel • Australian Broadcasting Corporation • Sample Magic • Sounds to Sample • Pigorsh Media Design Inc. • ESPN Network • NBC Network • American Public Media • Lions Gate Entertainment • Beatport.com • AAS – Applied Acoustics Systems • Chiller TV
Circling Crane is the creative force behind the popular Crate Diggers sample libraries:
Crate Diggers specializes in royalty-free vintage and historical sample libraries. From the ground breaking pre-vinyl, pre-tape, wax cylinder series to historical wire recordings and beyond. At the core of it all, is a drive to bring forth long forgotten sounds and transform them into new media materials for musicians, composers & sound designers. Crate Diggers provides some of the most unique & eclectic sample libraries available.
James and I have been working on this for the last year and I’ll soon be doing libraries working with cutting samples from the wax cylinders at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Some of the proceeds from the sales of those libraries goes back to UCSB to help fund preservation and digitalization. We will also be creating special libraries for composers who work on film and TV scoring, as well as composing for film/TV/commercials.
My main thing is getting moved right now. I’ve been in the process of moving from Illinois to Indiana, and that’s pulled all of my time. Once I have my studio set up, I’ll get to work on Circling Crane work and later on a solo album for Relaxed Machinery.
TVE: Thanks for your time John. We’ve covered quite a bit of ground and I really appreciate it ! I’d love to chat again sometime 🙂 Just for fun speculation, where do you think music production is heading?
JKN: I’ve enjoyed this immensely and sad it’s coming to an end! Music production will continue to evolve and change, and ebb and flow between new technology, new avenues for reaching people’s ears, and reaching back for the ‘old ways’. I think it’s neat there are so many toys and games that make music sort of easy for kids and adults to play with. It adds an experience they may never have had. I also think the people that dedicate their time and lives to music will always be around, taking new technology and techniques or adapting old techniques in new ways, or just being happy to continue in the older traditions of classical music or the folk songs of their areas.
Obviously how we listen and enjoy music will continue to evolve. In my lifetime so much has changed that it’s simply amazing. Where will we be in another decade, or in two? Music has been a part of our world since so far back, and it won’t ever go away. It’s a part of our lives whether you’re an active listener or a passive one. It’s a part of nature and a part of the world. I can only assume it’s a part of the fundamental structure of the universe.
Thanks again for inviting me to interview with you and for asking such wonderful questions!
You can find the Relaxed Machinery music label here.
You can find the Relaxed Machinery community here.
You can visit John’s Soundcloud page here.
You can visit the Relaxed Machinery Soundcloud page here.
Check out ‘sleepMODE’, a Relaxed Machinery music sampler, here.
- Interview by Steven James Elgrove
- Edited by Steven James Elgrove
- All static images used by kind permission of John Koch-Northrup. All Soundcloud links used by kind permission of John Koch-Northrup.