The Vivid Expanse: Hey Kaden. Thanks for agreeing to have a chat. We first ‘met’ over a decade ago when MP3.com ruled the kingdom of digital music and you were creating eldritch musical narratives that filled the ‘Dark Ambient’ charts. You’re also the ‘Eccentric Genius’, with a book to your name, and a dungeon filled with byzantine tools and siege engines (that’s how I envisage it at least!). Clearly you are living the artists’s life !
Kaden Harris: Yo…The pleasure is entirely mine; I never turn down an opportunity to talk about music with a hoopy frood.
Gotta correct one thing right off the top though: it’s the starving artist’s life that I’m living; a noble and time honoured tradition borne of humanity’s indomitable will to create despite it’s better judgement. It’s not a gig for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. That said, I couldn’t think of a better time to be an artist. The intersection of new technology with creativity has always been where new art happens, and there’s an endless stream of new technology available daily for anyone with a strange idea and a bit of motivation to have their way with.
MP3.com around the turn of the millennium was a pretty epiphanous convergence of technology, opportunity and musical outliers that impacted more people than would care to admit it. It heralded a fundamental paradigm shift in the way music happens; new tools, new methods, new business models and new musicians. Compared with the old ways of making music, it was *all* new.
Except for most of the music, which tended towards ‘all tarnce, all the time’.
Gotta take the bad with the good, I suppose.
TVE: You mentioned to me, sometime past, that you had stopped recording music, but not playing music. You called it a ‘zen thing’, if my memory serves.
KH: Well, sorta…see, I’ve played drums for about a million years, mostly in overly ambitious, gear intensive proggy kinda bands where it wouldn’t be considered odd for the drummer to have tape echoes, short wave radios and large chunks of sheet metal festooned with electromagnetic pickups. Sadly, I had retirement forced upon me when I sold my instruments and moved to Vancouver. This was right at the beginning of PCs and digital music, and digital waveform editing is waaay easier than the kinda physical/analog crap you needed to massage weird noises out of 1/4″ tape. Digital audio manipulation was undeniably exciting, and there was *profound* relief at never having to use a splicing block again, no shit. So I spent 6 or 7 years happy as a clam *just* doing computer based noise and dark ambient stuff, where the music did not exist outside of it’s meticulously assembled recorded form.
A guy I worked with talked me into playing drums again, and I ended up getting a TD-8 module from outta the blue as part of a swap/barter thingie. Things got weird after that. The expanded timbral palette of a hybrid electro-acoustic drumkit is startlingly musical and ridiculously addictive for a technically inclined fellow such as myself. I put a fair bit of effort into assembling a stupidly complex drumkit, and then even more effort into learning how it worked and how to play it. That took, like, 5 years and a string of skilled and over confident improvisational ‘rawk’ bands to accomplish, during which time *nothing* was written, and nothing recorded. We played, music occurred, and at that moment, that was all that mattered. It was very cathartic after spending years hunched over a screen shifting samples a few milliseconds to the left and sweating over pan envelopes. I strongly recommend the experience.
TVE: It’s interesting just how many musicians seem to hanker for the ‘good old days’ of analog when your experience suggests that it’s hard work ! Are we at the point yet where making music is as easy as clicking the mouse and lining up a few beats; and if so, does that compromise creativity in a way that makes it feel inauthentic due to a lack of effort? Perhaps this is where the ‘zen thing’ is an antidote?
KH: Analog *is* harder… there’s no ‘undo’ button, there’s no ‘quantize’ button, there’s no ‘apply groove’ dialogue, and if you want to fly a chorus into an arrangement it means spooling off a copy of the original onto a second reel, cutting that section out with a razor blade and physically splicing the extra bit of tape into your master. Digital audio production has removed instrumental proficiency and raw physical dexterity from the required skillset, for better or for worse. Cruise some current DAW forums and the threads with the highest post count are invariably the ‘what features do you want in the next update’ ones, with the punters demanding things that amount to full automation of the composition and production process (aside from tweezing filter cutoff frequencies, which can *only* be accomplished by hand, accompanied by much ritual grimacing).
It’s even funnier watching current digital producers make their forays into using hardware. I saw a thread recently on the Korg forum where the dude couldn’t figure out why there were timing issues cropping up doing loops with his new K-Pro. He was duly aggrieved when it was pointed out that he actually needed to hit the touch screen at the right time to get the groove to sit right.
Now, the upside of digital production is the ease of entry for world+dog. Anything that gets more people making music is a good thing, particularly people who don’t have the baggage that comes with traditional music and instrumental education. To retain relevance, Art of any kind requires a constant infusion of new influences, new creative vectors and new techniques; otherwise it just becomes a recursive, homage infused circle-jerk. For an example, I refer you to ‘Blues guitarists, modern, caucasian’.
After doing a lot of digital production, where you’re responsible for every decision, playing improvisational music in a band is *really* liberating. You don’t have to write every part, you don’t have to sweat every patch selection, and details about shit like reverb tail density cease to have any real meaning. The composition and production are collectively executed in real time; a process which takes exactly as long as the actual performance lasts.
And then it’s gone.
TVE: You’re the author of a book entitled ‘Eccentric Cubicle’; published by O’Reilly Media. There’s a strong rumour that you’re in the business of making siege engines in your spare time 🙂
KH: The siege engines have run their course actually. They were pretty popular back in the day, but even with variations, ya can only build the same basic mechanism a limited number of times before your hindbrain revolts out of sheer boredom; so I switched to Plan B. Plan B entailed a period doing insanely complicated…er… herbal smoking accessories (if you take my meaning), Alcohol Without Liquid delivery systems, and a bunch of photic brainwave entrainment mechanisms. There were a few proof-of-concept projectile accelerators in there as well. The legal questions concerning the entirety of Plan B gave my lawyer guy more than a few pauses for thought, truth be told.
Interestingly enough, for the last couple of years I’ve been doing R&D on MIDI controllers and electro-acoustic musical instruments. I’m currently prepping the workshop to bring some of them off the drawing board and into reality. The first one up is gonna be a custom control surface based on the Highly Liquid Midi CPU board, which is a brilliant piece of technology I cannot recommend highly enough. I’ve had one since the beta release and it’s a *really* flexible platform you can bend to your will painlessly. I’ve reconfigured it at least half a dozen times: ‘midifying’ thrift shop organ pedals, adding parameter controls to the TD8, bodging together a MIDI mallet instrument…that sort of thing. Since the current round of music production is aiming for live performance, a personalized control surface is pretty much of a no-brainer at this time. Laptop performances have an unfortunately limited range of visuals associated with them: it’s either ‘self absorbed man onstage checking his Email amidst blinkenlights’, or ‘whooping clubkid pumping his fist in the air while twitching spasmodically as he emphatically triggers another scene in Ableton’. I’m aiming for a controller that facilitates a performance more evocative than the first, and less spastic than the second; a functional interface that provides a certain degree of engagement to both the performer and the audience.
Yeah, there may be blinkenlights.
TVE: Got to have the blinkenlights ! Obviously, you’re highly technically proficient and I get the feeling that you might be heading into the area of customised instruments and MIDI controllers? Is this where we’ll see a convergence between your workshop and your music?
KH: Shop and music have never actually been very far apart. I have vivid memories of bodging a tape echo out of a 1st generation TAD-1 telephone answering machine, and screwing capstan rollers into the living room hardwood floor so I could use a *really* long tape loop. I musta been maybe 12 years old. I did a bunch of PAIA kits as a teenager, plus a lot of fairly ridiculous home made percussion things. Prog was big at the time, and synths and overwrought drumkits were the order of the day for any self respecting basement band. There wasn’t a lotta music technology at hand in rural Ontario, so you had to make do. It’s a pretty useful skillset to develop and maintain.
I’ve made a few electro-acoustic instruments as art pieces: some electric kalimbas, a solidbody hammered dulcimer and a mechanical theremin that was particularly trippy. Greg Valou has a duotonal overtone flute I made for him that’s kinda like conjoined fujaras; and for the book I did a mechanical drum sequencer and an infinite scale Blasterbeamesque thing that aided digestion 12 healthy ways.
There’s currently a lotta new forks in the path to pursue, and analog to digital interface tech has made quantum leaps lately, which is letting music hardware keep pace with the purely software domain. I’ve done some R&D on mutated electro-acoustic oddmusic flavoured instruments with deeply integrated controller abilities, which is the sort of thing the MIDI CPU board makes real easy to do. I’m field testing some of the design and mechanical concepts in the controller I’m working on now. If any of them turn out to be usable, I’ll have to come up with an arcane instrument to use them in, and then I’ll have to find somebody who wants to learn how to play it.
But I gotta finish the controller first. I’m still coming to grips with the ergonomics involved and how to maximize co-operation with my existing gear. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my life using either musical instruments or blinkenlite festooned boxes of technology, but this build is the start of a pretty unique merging of the two paths. I wonder what’s going to happen?
TVE: Can you look back and point to a watershed moment where everything just ‘clicked’? You spoke to me once about having worked with Mark Spybey of DVOA. That must have been quite fascinating?
KH: For me, the only thing that ever ‘just clicks’ is a badly made loop. You may start out with a vague idea of what you’re hoping to accomplish, but the processes involved invoke both The Fates and the Mysteries of Chaos so heavily that the outcome is invariably startling. From a compositional perspective, I think my true breakthrough was realizing the importance of paying attention closely enough to recognize and pursue viable conceptual forks as they happen.
It’s not often you get to work with a guy who can lay a solid claim to having actually invented a genre, which Mark did with Dark Ambient when he helped found Zoviet:France. Not withstanding his youthful Wishbone Ash affection, he’s a brilliant, brilliant musician who hears things in a fundamentally different way to most people. Watching him track with a cheap-ass 4 track cassette, a generic mic, a low-end Roland half rack multi-effects unit and a box of Fisher Price toys was pretty epiphanous. I’d been on the ‘if you want a weird noise, build a weird instrument’ path for years; Mark was all (in a dense Brum accent): ‘nah… the effects are the instruments… lemme show you’. He has a fundamental understanding of how to shape absolute extremes in signal processing into heartrendingly beautiful musical statements. That’s *serious* lore, and formed the entire foundation for how I grow my own samples.
Digital audio editing was nothing short of miraculous to me; coming from a background of 1/4″ tape, splicing blocks, and the extreme pain-in-the-assness of trying to sound like you had a 40 panel modular for processing when all you really had was a metal wastebin and a bodged flanger pedal. Being able to time-stretch a sample into a looped drone with, like, 3 mouse clicks is taken for granted these days. I still have nightmares about doing that kinda shit with razorblades, scotch tape and 456 on a 2 track Scully machine I pulled out of the CBC dumpster on Jarvis St. in Toronto. These are bountiful times for an experimental musician, particularly considering the amount of ‘crazy’ that hardware developers are folding into their designs. The hardware/software arms race is nothing but good news for people who have solidly ingrained instincts to misuse technology for aural purposes.
TVE: Could it be that you’re currently oiling the weird-sound-wok in preparation for something? You have a lot of your older material up on Soundcloud under the banner of ‘The Retrograde Timeline’, but new sounds from the workshop would be fantastic !
KH: Yeah, after spending the last 5 or 6 years drumming in totally improvisational ‘on-the-borders-of-rawk’ bands, I’m taking another pass at noisy/drony stuff based on the knowledge I assimilated playing with a bunch of deranged and absolutely fearless instrumentalists. I’ve cobbled together a fairly typical laptop rig based around Ableton, but I’m using it in a kinda non-Euclidean manner and I’m finding the results to be pretty satisfying. The first couple of pieces started life as live jams, and are currently pinned out on the tar pan for editing/mixing. They oughta be safe for public consumption in a day or two.
TVE: Still dark music for dark times Kaden?
KH: No shit my friend. These are the strangest of days, and as such, require a soundtrack.
TVE: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Any final sage advice?
1) Pay attention
2) Don’t be an asshole.
Those two points pretty much cover everything.
- Interview conducted by Steven James Elgrove
- Edited by Steven James Elgrove
- All static images used by kind permission of Kaden Harris. All Soundcloud links used by kind permission of Kaden Harris.