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Step Right Up: Botany

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We are delighted to premiere the beautiful new music video ‘Ory (Joyous Toil)’ by Austin’s Botany, taken from last year’s sublime ambient album ‘Deepak Verbera’ (released on the prestigious Western Vinyl imprint).

botany-1

 

Interview with Spencer Stephenson (Botany).

Deepak occupied a singular creative mental space for me that felt wholly different from anything I’d done before…”

Spencer Stephenson

 

Deepak Verbera’, the third LP by Austin’s Spencer Stephenson aka Botany, bends the beat-driven path carved by the composer’s first two records into free-form cosmic terrain, juxtaposing free jazz poly-rhythms, rich ambient textures and hypnotic psych-inflected harmonies. Following on from the more hip-hop oriented production of Botany’s first two records, ‘Deepak Verbera’ shows a master sound sculptor who ceaselessly blurs boundaries and pushes the sonic envelope.

 

 

 ‘Deepak Verbera’ is out now on Western Vinyl.

https://www.facebook.com/BotanyMusic/

https://botany.bandcamp.com/music

 

Interview with Spencer Stephenson (Botany).

 

Please talk me through the construction (or de-construction) of the utterly beguiling ambient exploration ‘Ory (Joyous Toil)’. For the recording itself, what was the equipment at your disposal?

Spencer Stephenson: A friend and former housemate of mine had come back from tour a few years ago with some cassette recordings of a harpist he had played a show with. He had asked her to play in some various keys and scales and recorded it through a handheld cassette player for the purpose of sampling, so I often pull from it to create beds of harp textures on my tracks. ‘Ory‘ begins with a sample of this tape being played on the piano roll in my DAW, jotted out in midi notes, kind of casio SK-1 style.

Everything else is laid out around that motif. It’s a very sonically full track but I don’t think there are more than a few layers, and the core structure consists only of those repeating chords created from the harp sample. Even with my vocal melody, I layered the same line over itself as opposed to creating a harmony. This song sounds maximal but is fairly minimal in its construction. It was one of the final tracks added to the album, and it felt like a breakthrough when I completed it. If the album is a face then this track is like the smile, or the human glint in its eyes. It makes the rest of the album connect with the listener, I feel.

I have some droning electric guitar that creates textural urgency and brings the song out of its softness, because I wanted most of this record to feel aggressively benevolent. The final element added was upright acoustic piano which I just plinked around on to create more texture billows, with the exception of the intro and outro chords. Despite how loose it seems to be, this track was the result of some level of deliberate sculpting to make everything feel both distinct and holistic at once. That’s why it has “Toil” in the title. The “Ory” part of it refers to Incredible String Band’s song Eyes of Fate which contains the line “echoes wholly only lonely, long before-y, ory, ory.” I mimick the final two words of that line softly in the background as a mantra.

One of the great hallmarks of your latest ‘Deepak Verbera’ LP is how the music is steeped in this cosmic sound world where an intense ambient dimension surrounds each creation. Can you discuss the making of ‘Deepak Verbera’ and the musical (or otherwise) influences you feel found its way into the overall sound?

SS: So on my album before ‘Deepak‘ I was juxtaposing straight ahead hip-hop production with heavy texturally-focused ambient exploration, really exploring how those two types of music could be made through the exact same means: samplers and record digging, DAWs, tape-recording, single-mic recording setups, etc. I turned in ‘Dimming Awe‘ and had this itch to keep going with the drum-less, spacey tendencies of it, so I hit the ground running and started working on ‘Deepak‘ before ‘Dimming Awe‘ was even mastered. ‘Deepak‘ occupied a singular creative mental space for me that felt wholly different from anything I’d done before and as a result it’s still my favorite in my discography. It felt like I had finally gained the confidence and palette to be able to put out something so freeform and uncensored, and I had been slowly stepping further out on that limb in the years before making this record.

I continue to be fervent about the idea that drone-y or contemplative music is not apolitical, and ‘Deepak Verbera‘ is an expression of that. In the American consciousness a lot of spiritually-leaning music, and contemplative spirituality in general, seems to have an association of passivity, or calmness, or something relegated to yoga studios and massage parlors. That, to me, shows a disappointing lack of imagination. In an era of sensory overload and cultural loudness, there’s nothing more anti-authority than turning down and coaxing the listener into introspection. There’s plenty of self-centeredness to go around, but self-awareness is overlooked. And I think that cosmic or spiritual perspectives can sometimes feel brutalizing, humbling, and scathing, and transcendent at the same time. So with ‘Deepak‘ I wanted to make a record that was at once both peaceful and turbulent. Elevating and unseating at the same time.

Some of the spiritual jazz that arose after John Coltrane’s death seemed to imply a similar motive, so people like Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane are obvious touchstones. The recent Ariel Kalma retrospective that RVNG put out also had a direct effect. I came of age during a time when hippie-ness was kind of re-appropriated and folded into freak folk and the New Weird America movement, and underground music became this weird Bush-era version of the late 60’s and early 70’s. There seemed to be an unapologetic leap into rambling freeform and improv within that paradigm that has been stitched permanently into my musical quilt.

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I’d love to gain an insight into your approach to making the more hip-hop oriented sound of your previous works under the alias of Botany? Can you talk me through the process by which you splice different segments and elements together and how you feel you have learned and developed as a producer in this regard?

SS: That style of production is my first love, musically. It’s my default mode in a lot of ways. I started out writing full arrangements on guitar as a kid, and making a song out of samples feels no different to me, in fact its more fulfilling. I choose which elements of what I’m sampling fit best into a song, the same way I’d select chords or tones as a guitarist, and rhythms as a drummer. I rarely feel that I’m sampling something that’s outside of my own capability to play on any instrument with the exception of horns or strings. To me, sampling is about a wider curation process than traditional musicianship can provide. The timbrel, textural, and tonal array of sampling opens itself up far beyond what anything that a single instrumentalist can do on his or her own in a bedroom. Hip-hop is the most forward thinking genre in that regard, especially 90’s hip-hop when the MPC was the be-all-end-all.

So when I sit down to make a track I usually operate through those methods, even though I’m doing it outside of an MPC. It begins a lot of times by programming drums or rhythms and then building around that. I have a huge archive of loops and samples that I’ve created, but I usually sample from something outside of my archive when I’m working on new stuff. It all comes from various sources– vinyl, cassette, personal recordings, film, whatever.

I also begin a lot of projects around some interesting loop I’ve found, which is probably true for a lot of producers. Lately I’ve been into the vibe of manipulating one tiny sound, or a congruent stack of sounds, and taking it out of context, bending and pitching it around and having that process be the core of the track itself without need of structure or meter.

Please recount your memories of growing up in Texas and your musical upbringing. Your curiosity with many facets of sound and using sources and playing varied instruments must have stemmed from your adolescence I presume?

SS: Yeah, so I grew up in an area that was pretty lush and undeveloped, and I realize as I grow older that that was hugely influential. My father is also a musician, and my mother had good taste in music and was a careful listener, I remember showing her Four Tet’s album Rounds and hearing her later refer to him as a genius, so that says something about her ear. That combination of environment and musical enthusiasm made me into a musician. I have a deeply imprinted memory of being at home one rainy Friday afternoon in sixth grade. My dad and brother shared this bass guitar and amplifier in a room in the back of our house that had a big wall-wide window on one side. After noodling around on the bass I laid it down on the floor and ran one finger over the open strings for about an hour. Just “G, D, E, A” repeatedly for about an hour while I looked out the window at foliage dripping in the rain. I think that’s the moment when I realized that music doesn’t have to be in song form, that it can be an investigation into sound itself.

I grew up in a small town outside of Fort Worth, Texas so the pool of musicians was fairly small. There was a period where I was participating in other bands, mostly playing metal and whatever they were into, but the whole time I had this vision for a really exploratory, rhythm-heavy sound that had nothing to do with any of that. I got old enough to have interest in my parents’ vinyl collection so I started listening to folks of their generation like Nick Drake, Billy Cobham, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix who had always been a part of my life but who I’d started to fully appreciate around then.

My older brother was also making Drum & Bass and I really took to LTJ Bukem and Roni Size.  It was all of this stuff together at a very formative age. That stuff demonstrated how electronic music was made. But through the older music I started to make the connection that this is what hip-hop was sampling, this was what hip-hop came out of in a sense. I was really honing in on Jay Dee’s production on Common’s “Like Water For Chocolate” of all things. That’s such a defining album for me because of its conceptual through-line and its interludes, hidden tracks, and jazz nods. It really played with and utilized the full-length format, weaving in and out of amazing singles with these really exploratory easter-eggs that rewarded patient listening.

A lot of my youth was spent being just that, a patient listener in an isolated headspace separated from the goings-on of my peers because of having a different musical vision than them. Almost no one else in my town really “got” the music I was interested in, so I ended up making it alone. I resented it at the time, but I appreciate my path now. I didn’t realize how much it forced me to follow my idea of what I thought music was supposed to be.

Lastly, please pick your most cherished psychedelic and jazz records from your collection. Would you have certain defining records that for you, you must always come back to?

SS: I definitely have some staples in my collection. The older I get the harder it is to fully cherish anything outside of those staples, there’s so much music being released, but I keep my ear open with some focused effort. On the psychedelic tip, which I consider to be very broad, I’ve been regularly listening to these records for years, most for about a decade:

Iasos – Inter-Dimensional Music

Colleen – Everyone Alive Wants Answers

NEU! – s/t

Broadcast & The Focus Group – Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age / HaHa Sound

JK & Company – Suddenly One Summer

Incredible String Band – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter / The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion

Semya – Golden Days

Windy & Carl – Consciousness

Can – Tago Mago / Future Days

As far as jazz stuff goes, in no order or chronology:

Herbie Hancock – Mwandishi

Pharoah Sanders – Thembi

Don Cherry – Organic Music Society

Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil

David Axelrod – Song of Innocence (didn’t know whether to put this under psych or jazz)

Alice Coltrane – Huntington Ashram Monastery

John Coltrane – A Love Supreme

Weather Report – s/t (1971)

Art Ensemble of Chicago – People in Sorrow

 ‘Deepak Verbera’ is out now on Western Vinyl.

https://www.facebook.com/BotanyMusic/

https://botany.bandcamp.com/music

 

 

Written by admin

March 7, 2017 at 6:14 pm