Chosen One: Pan American
Interview with Mark Nelson, Pan American.
“In some ways I make music to try and open that illusive channel-a kind of sensual meeting of memory and emotion: remembered and misremembered, vivid and unreliable.”
Words: Mark Carry
Over the past two decades, the seminal works of American sound sculptor Mark Nelson – across various musical projects, both solo and collaborative – has ceaselessly crafted breath-taking and shape shifting ambient soundscapes. From his work with Robert Donne and Carter Brown in seminal ambient-rock band Labradford to his collaborative project with Labradford-mate Donne and drummer extraordinaire Steven Hess (Locrian, Fennesz, Haptic and others) in Anjou who masterfully combine modular synthesis, Max/MSP programming and live instrumentation. Since 1998’s Pan American (Nelson’s solo project) self-titled debut – released on the prestigious Chicago-based Kranky imprint – Nelson’s resolutely unique and highly emotive ambient electronica music has constantly pushed the sonic envelope and generated new possibilities through the art of sound. Similar to label-mate Loscil (aka Vancouver’s Scott Morgan), the slowly evolving ambient creations of Pan American possesses a rare magic, intensity and sheer emotion that reveals new meaning and significance upon each revisit.
Earlier this year marked the special release of ‘Rue Corridor’, the latest Pan American EP and the second instalment of Geographic North’s Sketch For Winter series, Nelson creates swirling and hypnotic textural rhythms and luminous tones. The utterly transcendent opener ‘The Terrace’ is a joyous sonic exploration where elements such as space, time and existence fade into full focus. The soothing electronica and ambient pulses transports me back to first discovering the electronic milestones of the early 2000’s from the likes of Ulrich Schnauss, Fennesz, Manual and a host of others (which inevitably includes Pan American’s ‘The River Made No Sound’ from 2002.
‘Sketch for Winter II: Rue Corridor’ is out now on Geographic North.
Interview with Mark Nelson, Pan American.
Firstly, please discuss the beautiful ‘Rue Corridor’ cassette release as part of the Geographic North Sketch For Winter series. It’s a very beautiful release with your trademark textural rhythms and slowly evolving soundscapes. What do you feel is the narrative or context behind this latest Pan American release?
Mark Nelson: Thank you for the kind words. With the Pan American music, there’s always a bit of a conversation and sometimes tension between the acoustic songs and the more electronic ones. It’s not quite that black and white-but I tend to be (in my own mind) emphasizing one or the other at any given point in time. After a long period of focusing more on guitar, I started working on some sequenced based music again-deliberately trying to push tempos a bit from where I usually end up-sometimes I worry I stick to close to a comfort zone in terms of meter and texture-anyway, as some of that effort seemed to be producing some interesting results, I was contacted by Bobby at Geographic North. Everything about the label and the people involved vibed in a way that really appealed to me. Beautiful design, a well thought out approach and a laid back kind of intelligence and seriousness comes across in what they do. The timing was right and I’m proud of how it turned out.
The opening track ‘The Terrace’ is a true tour-de-force where a myriad of magical moments gradually fade in and out of focus, for example the drums & percussion (wonderfully added several minutes in) or the electronic glitches that form the composition’s vital pulse. Can you please shed some light on the construction of a multi-layered composition such as ‘The Terrace’? Was there a certain element that formed the composition’s starting point?
MN: You know, the starting point was just trying to write a faster sort of song built on rhythm but without traditional drum kit elements framing the beat. So it comes from a series of synthesizer sequences. It was mostly made using a very basic 16 step software sequencer and some other elements, ultimately including guitar and acoustic cymbals.
A plethora of Pan American records have been released on the ever-dependable Chicago independent label, Kranky. I would love for you to discuss how you feel you have developed as a composer over the years, Mark? For instance, in terms of collecting sounds and recording, does the process alter significantly between albums?
MN: It has a bit-I started trying to avoid sounding like Labradford. So certain influences were sort of off-limits for Pan American in the beginning. Certainly working with electronic tools-sequencers, synthesizers, drum machines, samplers has been a big part of it. Moving a bit on from playing guitar in a band and writing and recording in a collaborative band setting. Ultimately, though I really prefer collaborations and have tried to introduce more outside influences into the music. It’s not a particularly intellectual or planned-out approach. I’ve called it in the past a very slow-moving improvisation, and I guess that’s still mostly how the approach feels to me.
Please take me back to your earliest musical memories. Growing up, what was your first exposure to sound and music? Also, what instruments would you learn to play first?
MN: I was not particularly musical as a young kid, but I think I did always feel an emotional connection to sound-we lived in Switzerland for 4 or 5 years when I was growing up in a smallish village outside Zurich. I can still feel the church bells at night, train sounds, dogs and sheep-even then without intellectualizing it the ambient sounds defined for me what life felt like.
When we moved back to the U.S we lived in a suburb right outside Washington DC. This was the mid/late 80’s so perfect time and place to get into hardcore and punk. I was never interested in that scene though, either culturally or musically. That scene built crucial networks in the US for touring, record production and distribution and promotion though, so I’m certainly indebted to the infrastructure they built, but the music has never appealed to me.
In high school there was a radio DJ on Saturday and Sunday mornings on a public station out of Howard University played an incredible blues show-weaving brilliant music selections with stories about his friends and neighbourhood. I’m sure that guy is a legend and people into blues and roots music in the DC area know who he was. I had tapes of his shows for years but have lost them now. I worked as lifeguard and would drive home at 9 or 10 at night listening to go-go on the radio-another great DJ called The Moonman. He would play this incredible dense, dance music and talk about parties in parts of DC and Maryland I’d never heard of. So that part of my life is defined in sense-memory by driving and listening and smelling chlorine. I still swim a lot and come to think of it, music does always sound best when my hair smells like chlorine.
I liked old rock n roll-Elvis, Buddy Holly and got into post punk as it got rootsy-REM was a big one for me-the Reckoning LP, Los Lobos, too-there first EP-that led to things like X which led to Wire and so on. Somewhere in there I started playing guitar.
I am intrigued with ambient artists and the vast libraries of sounds you must continually collect and in turn, sculpt from. I feel there is a lovely parallel between yourself and labelmate Scott Morgan (aka Loscil). What do you feel has been the overarching theme to your work to date?
MN: Certainly flattered to be thought of in a similar light to Scott. He’s building a lovely body of music and is a true Gentleman. I don’t really have too much of a fetish for my sounds though-I don’t take particularly good care of them. Apart from some key guitar elements-a reverb, volume pedal-sounds come and go.
Overarching theme? No. but a returning emphasis on emotional moments and presence- in life that often don’t seem meaningful but end up defining certain spheres of memoryspace.
A physical environment of association and overtone is probably how I would define what I try to create.
A small example-answering these questions and knowing they’re coming from Cork, Ireland-I have a memory of Labradford’s brief and lovely visit to your city. We played at a university venue and I have a vivid memory of a brief exchange with the promoter-I noticed from a poster that Paul Motian had played there the previous week so I asked the promoter about it. I can still occupy that fleeting, moment as he answered but not from my original perspective, more in a 3D floating way seeing the venue stairs behind him and his laugh and the sound of people milling around the bar wearing heavy dark coats. In some ways I make music to try and open that illusive channel-a kind of sensual meeting of memory and emotion: remembered and misremembered, vivid and unreliable.
Unfortunately, Paul Motian apparently treated everyone like shit!
I would love for you to discuss the field recordings and sounds of this nature you use in your own ambient soundscapes. Also, take me back to your first explorations with sound. Did you begin with tape devices to record your musical ideas? I can imagine this particular space in time was a very exciting time?
MN: I have to speak to the cassette 4 track recorder! They were a total revolution for their time and for me. Before unlimited hard drive space like now the cassette 4 track allowed so many people to work as their own producers by allowing multi tracking. I had 3 or 4 of them and in terms of music being new and thrilling and something I began to think I could maybe really make my own-the cassette 4 track was so crucial. Every now and then I still look them up on eBay-there was a Marantz model I particularly coveted. I’ve almost bought one a couple of times in the last 3 or 4 years-but maybe some dreams are more alive if they remain elusive! In my world there’s a special chair in paradise for the inventor of the 4 track.
What projects do you have in the pipeline, Mark?
MN: New Anjou!
What records have served a profound impact on your own musical path do you feel? What records have you been heavily immersed in these past few months?
MN: Maybe a moment for the record labels-I’ve been lucky to have the association and personal friendship with Kranky. Feel the same way about the release on Geographic North. As the business side evolves, I really hope labels find a way to survive-although it’s a pretty bleak picture at the moment. Labels have been critical to my understanding of music and finding a path and links-Sun records to Slash, the mystery for a US kid reading about Rough Trade and Factory. I still think that way-last couple weeks revisiting Mego-Farmers Manual, Pure, Hecker, Fennesz of course. Also spent today listening to Blood and Fire lp’s-so crucial to me-Horace Andy, The Congos. Newer sounds? I like Mary Halvorson. Stefan Nemeth solo and with Lokai. Drawing a blank beyond that at the moment-there’s lots can’t think of them. Songhoy Blues is probably tops on my playlist at the moment-wicked guitar playing and thrilling music.
‘Sketch for Winter II: Rue Corridor’ is out now on Geographic North.