One night I had just purchased a few Celer CDs. Before turning in for the night, I received an email from Tim of Somehow Recordings. He told me about a new release from Will Long of Celer, entitled ‘Redness + Perplexity’, about to be released by his label. In that email, he also asked if I’d like to conduct an interview with Will Long of Celer. Being a massive fan of Celer, I jumped at the chance, naturally ! Fate? Serendipity?
TVE: Thank you kindly for taking the time to have a chat with me Will. Firstly, I’d just like to say that I’ve been a huge fan of Celer’s work since picking up ‘Engaged Touches’ last year. I really enjoy the focus, restraint, poetry and purity of Celer’s music; so thank you ! I understand that your new album, ‘Redness + Perplexity’, is being released on Somehow Recordings. Having listened to it with great interest a few nights ago, I was surprised by the diversity of sounds used throughout the album. There are movements of ethereal intensity, such as the opener ‘Voluminous Files of Multi-Coloured Lines’; and also movements of overtly digital vigour and strength, such as ‘Buzzing Heartbeat’. Did you have a specific intent or set of themes in mind when you put together this album?
WL: Thank you too. I appreciate it a lot. ‘Redness + Perplexity’ is indeed very diverse; probably in a much more drastic way than others in the past. However, it came together as a patchwork of a certain period of time. At this time, I was really trying many different things quickly. There were multiple shows with just a few days in between in Tokyo. I also try to do something new in some way for the shows, and since I usually wait until the last minute to prepare anything for shows, in a narrow time period the results can become unpredictable.
The album originally was a 20-minute synthesizer improvisation, very lightly and smoothly processed. After a while though it didn’t seem like enough, and I decided to combine pieces of the synthesizer improvisation with the more experimental pieces I was making at the same time for the live shows. This time there wasn’t a specific theme in mind. As usual, I try to let things evolve, and when it becomes a state that feels right, if it needs a story, it has automatically developed.
TVE: The recent release – ‘Epicentral Examples of the More or Less’ – also features a similar variety of sonic snapshots and transitions through distinct aural vistas. As on ‘Redness + Perplexity’, you’ve included a few surprising brighter synth sounds (my particular favourite being the lovely arps on ‘Lazy Beauty’ !). In terms of letting ‘things evolve’, would you consider this style an evolution of Celer’s sound?
WL: ‘Epicentral Examples of the More or Less’ is similar in its collage-style, but it was recorded over a much longer period than ‘Redness + Perplexity’, whose main power was channeling the energy (and lack of) from recording over a very short period of time. The overall feelings in ‘Epicentral’ are really different to me, and there are more passages of reminders of experiences and living through it, than in memory. The brighter synthesizer sounds have been used a lot in the past, but they were almost always more hazy and hidden.
When I was in Indonesia, I had all my possessions in one suitcase. The restrictions of being able to use only really basic tools for creating music is something I wanted to show through the album. Therefore, the synth sounds aren’t treated at all or I used really simple treatments, and the tape loops used overdriven feedback, and the old system of recording with effects over and over and over again. The album ‘Menggayakan’, which was entirely recorded in Indonesia, was done in the same way.
I plan on using the synth sounds more openly in the future, as the more 1980’s style synth sounds have always been an influence for me. Maybe just having the right equipment is another reason they have seldom appeared so far.
TVE: Celer does synth-pop…now that would be something ! As a writer (and former angsty young poet!), one of the qualities I have always been attracted to in every Celer release is the underpinning narrative. So many of the titles of your tracks and albums seem to resonate strongly in the fields of memory, the un/familiarity of location and the dynamics of intimate relationships. Album titles like ‘Vestiges of an Inherent Melancholy’ point strongly at dark personal stories; track titles like ‘How I Imagine my Hand Holds Yours’ (on ‘Dying Star’) speak of a lonely and remote love; and more recently on ‘Epicentral Examples of the More or Less’, the opener is mysteriously titled ‘Motionless at Lake Underhere’ – suggestive of a serene but secret location. What ideas and themes do you see as vital to your music?
WL: Most of the time I keep on making music as if it was writing in a diary, so many things that happen already have their own sound and memory for me. It’s just putting it to music and how it sounds to me. Sometimes it works in reverse order, with music matching memory, and it builds from there. For me, the themes and ideas are really open. I establish a guide through the titles and music, some things more set than others, and use images as best I can to relate to my own intentions. Though I hope through this, people find something from their own experiences while also sympathizing with some of mine.
TVE: So, given that you record a lot of material, do you find yourself composing formal pieces for official releases using different sounds from different periods of time and placing them in some organised context via track titles and sound processing?
WL: Sometimes pieces from different time periods are put together, but most commonly it’s all within a short period of time. I make folders and collections of things, and when it seems like enough, or they seem to match well enough for an album or EP, I’ll stop making new things and put it together. Usually that happens really quickly. I don’t like spending a long time on something; or if I do, I stop working on it altogether for several months until it sounds fresh again. The spontaneity of the music is important, like a fresh memory, or finding a photo after you’ve nearly forgotten about it.
TVE: I think the very best music is marked by enormous patience and devotion to detail. It never ceases to amaze me just how much patience and focus there is driving Celer’s music. On ‘Tightrope’, for example, the music ebbs and flows warmly, but despite the glacial pace of the piece as a whole, there’s a definite sense of progression and a great amount of detail. How do you maintain the focus and patience necessary to compose in this way?
WL: It really moves quickly for me, and feels very natural. The patience is not always in the time it takes to do something, but in just trying to finish everything and see things through. Detail is important, but so is freedom and letting the music shape itself. I do a lot of matching with tracks when I make a more complex album like ‘Tightrope’…such as having two samples: one a piano note, and the other an organ swell that is twice as long. Seeing those visually (I draw a lot of the sounds for mixing), I change their structure to match the opposite sound, then mix them together and process them. It makes strange effects, but when you do something like this, layer and repeat 20+ small and long tracks together, something like ‘Tightrope’ comes out. The forthcoming album ‘Nothing but Waving Summits’ on Eat, Sleep, Repeat is made in a similar way, but in much larger, repeating (but slightly different) sections.
About how I do it: I work on something just about every day, so it’s more like a habit. There’s always something to work on, and it’s good to stay creative. It’s an inner drive, in some way, just to be doing something constantly.
TVE: You’d mentioned previously that when you were in Indonesia, you had all of your possessions in one suitcase, which was reflected in your music at the time. Do you thrive creatively if you have to work to certain limitations or work with a limited studio setup?
WL: Yes, everything is done always with somewhat of a limited setup, even when I’m in the studio. It’s overdriving having too much stuff, so keeping things simple and focused is much better. I like trying simple things in many different ways, and then putting them together. For example, a tiny handheld radio was a major instrument in the ‘Redness + Perplexity’ album, using just that and a phaser for noise in some parts, while using more quiet tape loops from a piano or synthesizer, just changing the speeds on the tape machine and using some simple effects are enough.
TVE: Does your working method mostly involve recorded improvisations on hardware? Do you use any software for effects or sequencing duties?
WL: Sometimes it’s improvisation. Things rarely come out like I imagine, but it’s a combination of planning styles and sounds, and then seeing what happens. Usually I’m only using software for mixing and wide-band equalization, but I’ve used software for some things in the past. It’s usually a combination of both sides. I used to challenge myself to create an album with only a piece of trial software, with the trial as the limit. It was tough, and a crash course in learning something new, but some very strange results came out.
TVE: There’s a conversation in Japanese on ‘Redness + Perplexity’ which might be rather interesting, if only I could understand the language! Do you use a lot of field recordings in your music, both processed and unprocessed?
WL: I like to use field recordings, but I prefer more real-world sounds than more electroacoustic detail. Sampling everyday life is inspiring, and brings back so many memories beyond music, even if few of them are actually transmitted to the listener at all. You don’t need music to recognize them.
The recording of the conversation on ‘Redness + Perplexity’ was actually directly from radio. If you listen to the track before it, the music goes from synth-driven ambience to almost harsh noise. The harsh noise came directly from the radio sent through some pedal effects. At the moment of the beginning of the track, I had switched all the effects off to the dry signal from the radio.
The conversation itself is interesting for me in two ways. For one, if you understand Japanese, it begins after the beginning of the conversation, so all you can understand from it is that they are talking about a product used to help people after the Japan earthquake in Tohoku, but you never learn what the product is. On a different level, to a non-Japanese speaker, the conversation is interesting to me because of the manner of speaking, from casual to very formal, and the specific nature of the enunciation of the words. It’s difficult to explain, but I found it interesting on many different levels. Besides, when I switched off the effects with the noise, that was the station the radio was on.
TVE: Ahh right…when I listen back to it, I can hear that process. I like the fact that once you’d switched off the FX, the conversation happened to be on the radio and you recorded that as part of the track. Do these sorts of ‘happy accidents’ form part of the foundation of your sound?
WL: Sometimes. It’s all part of a natural evolution of things. I remember once I was trying to record a scene with a song from the James Bond movie ‘Thunderball’, and the YouTube kept playing 5 seconds and cutting out, playing 5 seconds and cutting out, leaving these gaps in the song. I thought it was annoying at first, but then later I thought, ‘Ah, YouTube just created my samples for me. So, I used those just as they were. I wouldn’t say it’s a foundation of the sound, but it’s a tool.
TVE: Do you primarily use pedals and outboard hardware for much of your sound processing? Do you have any favourite or ‘go to’ FX?
WL: It really varies often. There’s almost no equipment of any kind that I’ve used always, or on every album. Maybe similar techniques, but I’m changing things relatively often. I don’t really collect equipment, and sometimes the things I have I hardly ever use. I’ve always used open reel to reels a lot, but I’ve broken so many that I can’t say I have a reliable one. Space and Chorus Echos are nice; any of those old style effects are the best.
TVE: Earlier, you mentioned that you’ve been influenced by 80s style synth sounds. What other musical and artistic influences do you have?
WL: It’s a really huge range, and practically none of it sounds like my music. Then again, if you really listened to parts of, say, the Robocop soundtrack, John Barry’s ‘The Deep’ disco theme, or Gershwin’s ‘An American In Paris’ with Gene Kelly, there’s something in all of those places that’s an influence, maybe even with a similar sound, just on a different platform. A lot of the ‘dream series’ albums were drawn in comparison to Gershwin’s film scores. Strangely, when you look at the music visually, so many things look the same. Gershwin’s scores have huge waves, pieces of silence and delicacy, and enormous range in length and size. It’s not difficult and still fascinating to use that as the map and influence for a tonal, pure electronic album.
TVE: When listening to Celer, I often hear a series of sounds moving together and meeting at times, like ripples in water. There’s light and dark in your music; hope and melancholy; as if something raw and very human is exposed to an audience. Apart from the big musical influences we’ve been discussing, from where do you draw your own inspiration to create such glacial and moving sounds?
WL: It definitely varies from time to time, but I’d say it’s a mixture of things. I didn’t really set out to start making music in this particular style, it’s just what came out. I have my influences, which range from music, but also film, as I studied film history in college and have always been interested in cinematography as well. At the same time, seeing each day with more broad strokes of music seems more fitting to me. A lot of the time there’s a movement without any real occurrence. Sometimes a street is active with many people and things going on, sometimes it’s quiet with only a car passing now and then. It feels to me like the mood of a time or place. This goes deeper into memory and my own experience just because the human experience with what and how memories are triggered affect the overall experience also.
Really though, as much as I try to explain why I think the music comes out like it does, it just seems natural to me. When I lived in California once, a friend visited me. After we went to the beach, he said that now he understood my music, even though I admitted that I didn’t see the connection. Maybe it’s best explained in this sort of way, with how people connect to it. For me it means something altogether different, maybe more personal, maybe not, but others can see it on a baseline level, accompanied by surroundings and influences. At the same time, many people have said my music sounds more ‘Japanese’ since living in Japan. I’m not sure that it’s really that different, but it’s possible, though I can’t even begin to explain why.
TVE: As we’re discussing the impact of education and influences, did you study music and composition? Did you play in any bands?
WL: I didn’t ever study music at all, and never played in any bands either. In junior high school, I tried to start a band with a friend of mine, but it was a bad collaboration and we broke up before we ever even made a song. The only music training I have is the piano that my mother taught me as a child, and playing the drums in the junior high school band for about 6 months.
TVE: I know that you perform live on a regular basis. Do you generally perform new material? Do you use a modest setup? How does a Celer live show work?
WL: For the last 2 years I’ve been performing about once a month at least, though now I’m starting to slow that down. I try to do something different in some way for each show, using different equipment or really simple setups. I usually always play only one piece for one show, and don’t play it again.
In the future, I’ll be playing fewer shows as Celer and working more on my project ‘Oh, Yoko’ with Miko, and my analog drum machine project ‘Nashi’. Bigger and better for Celer, I hope.
TVE: I understand that there are two new Celer releases: ‘I, Anatomy’ on Drag City and ‘Rags of Contentment’ on Dronarivm. Can you tell me a little more about them?
WL: The two new releases this August are both quite different from each other. ‘Rags of Contentment’ is actually a reissue of an album that was previously available only on cassette through Digitalis Limited. This is its first time on CD, from the new Russian label Dronarivm. The music is two very big and textured tracks made from elongated layers of field recordings and processed instruments, blurred together and indistinguishable. I don’t remember a lot from it other than what I wrote in the press release, which follows:
“I remember photos and negatives of sun-scorched Nepal scattered around the floor, notebooks written in randomly and seeming empty, and the evening lights of the outside night that seemed like they wouldn’t ever darken. We drove to Santa Ana over the 405 freeway to record the cars going by, but ended up watching the lights, buying whisky, and sitting the car listening to scratched Joanna Newsom CDRs and Eno’s Discreet Music. When the night was finally asleep and quiet, everything seemed still and the streets seemed dead, except for the swaying palm trees, and the glow from the kitchen light that was never turned off. Even the things that don’t exist anymore are still there, even if they aren’t apparent and obvious as much as they once were”.
‘I, Anatomy’ is an entirely different album altogether, structured in more of a free-form collage style than in larger textured pieces. It is a special album for many reasons, and for me it represents something of a culmination of work to a greater end, being released by the Streamline label, whom I’ve looked up to as an artist and musician for a long time. The album was completed in the fall of 2009, when I was also dealing with the death of Danielle, so it feels very symbolic in it’s completion, representing those times and events.
Musically, some of the pieces used represent strong memories, and music that was carefully selected and created. The album as a whole took a long time to make, which is commonly unusual for me.
When it came time just to write the press release, it was really difficult. Usually an album covers a short period of time and places, but this one went through so many more places and times. Every piece was a memory, and gave new life to things that had been forgotten. Finally, it was special having the artwork of Christoph Heemann for the cover. In many ways it is really a peak for me.
TVE: Having formerly been a duo with your late wife Danielle, and now carrying on yourself under the Celer name, do you now feel that you are moving forward and finding your own sound as Will Long?
WL: I think that moving is about the only thing I can really do. It may not always be forward, but things are always moving in some direction. I try to just keep doing things as they feel natural and right, and follow ideas and inspiration. For me things are always changing, but I don’t really feel a comfortable place to stop, even though I do want to slow down.
TVE: You work with a great variety of labels and release in different formats, including the venerable Cassette Tape. In this age of digital downloads, what do you think of physical music products? Do they still have an important place?
WL: To me, physical products are still very important. I like having CDs and records, even cassette tapes, but especially living in Japan you come to realize that having space to keep these things isn’t always easy, so I try to only buy things that are really important to me. As a musician, having a physical version of a release makes the entire release feel more special, like you’ve created something that people can find a long time from now, whereas digital files are so disposable. I appreciate digital files for archivals, but there’s little to me about it that is actually special.
I hope I never hear someone ask someone else ‘what’s your favorite mp3?’, as opposed to ‘what’s your favorite record?’
TVE: As a Celer fan, I now have some very geeky questions to ask, which are possibly frivolous! On the album ‘Dying Star’, only a ‘vintage analog synthesizer and mixing board’ were used (from the press release); what was the analog synthesizer used? I know that you enjoy photography and take a lot of photographs; do you use any specific cameras?
WL: The synth used for ‘Dying Star’, and also some others, is a Roland MKS-80 Super Jupiter, but I change pretty often. These days the Yamaha DX7 is fun.
I do love photography. Just using simple film cameras is fun for me. I mostly use a Nikon F3 and F1, and a Contax T2. Simple, but using basic equipment lets you be more free and creative.
TVE: Thank you so much for your time and patience Will. We’ve covered a lot of ground and I think we’ve delved into some interesting areas! What’s next for you? Are there any interesting projects coming up?
WL: Thank you for the interview Steve! It’s been a pleasure. What’s next? Not surprisingly, I will be working on a lot of music, but Celer will be continuing at a slow and reserved pace so that I can instead focus on some other things equally, such as my band with Miko (‘Oh, Yoko’) my new solo techno project (‘Nashi’), my label and photography. Most of all, I’ll just try to stay creative and productive.
Celer on the Web:
Main Celer site
Recumbent in Wishes (Blog)
Celer Bandcamp site
All images and sounds used by kind permission of Will Long