Despite being one of my favourite albums from last year, I never actually got around to writing about ASC’s ‘Time Heals All’. Released on Silent Season, it cemented the label as one of the best out there for the year, and firmly assured ASC as a class act – not only under his more familiar drum’n bass guise, but with these new ventures into deep, atmospheric ambient soundscapes.
2014 sees James Clements revisit this approach. ‘Truth Be Told’ has already sold-out in physical formats, with a digital release set for June 1st [available here] – something most ambient artists can only dream of in today’s industry. But, if you’ve laid ears on this release already, or indeed any of his previous on Silent Season, this success won’t come as a surprise.
‘Truth Be Told’ is James’ third full-ambient release and his third on Canadian based label Silent Season. An extension of his previous sound, it’s another dream-like album packed full of textures, sound design and vivid journeys. An extension of ‘Time Heals All’ (2013), the album is tailored for the ethereal escapist, diving deep, and shimmering beautifully across nine tracks.
It’s hard to pick any moments from the album or indeed talk through it track-by-track, as it sits beautifully as one piece – something i’m sure James was intending. You quickly draw comparisons with his influences from bvdub, but here, witnessed through more attention to detail as opposed to the building, progressive swathes of pads Brock is known for. Instead of 15-minute euphoria, you’re treated to tiny echo-ing detail, bouncing around your head like you’re walking through the main hall of a desolate, grand 19th century building. Small creaks, echoes, washes of atmosphere and tiny bells adorn a purposeful journey, as you gently stroll in slow motion, half-edged, taking in the charm of the sounds surrounding you.
The album glides through moods swiftly and unnoticed. A gentle, nonchalant first track ”Some Other Life’ is a perfect setting for what’s to follow, never quite divulging any melody and tinkering at the sounds you’ll be treated to throughout the journey. By track four, ‘Hall Of The Gods’, the atmosphere is tense, and the walk through desolate halls has turned into an expansive chamber full of history and fear. What’s apparent through this album, is that James has a keen sense for tension, moments and vividness – perhaps evident by his recent work on soundtracks as detailed in the interview below.
By track nine, you’ve been lulled into the depths of ASC’s magic and ‘The Certainty of Tides’ capitalises on his expansive synth-work, sitting neatly alongside complimentary washes and sounds adorning the vivid distanced hills. It’s the kind of work that lets you sit back and watch the world go by – the rolling clouds, the gentle sway of forests and the thought of the intricacies involved in both of natures wonders. An appreciation of the epic and a respect for the details involved seems to be the theme…. sit back and let it wash over you, or dive head-first into the world that ASC has created.
Truth be Told is available on Silent Season June 1st.
I was lucky enough to have a chat with James over email, as well as get an exclusive mix as part of the isolatedmix series. This is the first isolatedmix without a tracklist, but with sacrifice comes great pleasure – it’s a mix packed full of new material, exclusives and work that James has only just finished this week. An exciting time for him, for his label, and his new production ventures – an indeed a great pleasure for me to host such an amazing producer on the site, and as part of the isolatedmix series.
Hello James, what are you up to as you answer my millions of forthcoming questions? Anything exciting?
ASC: I’m taking a break from working on music for an independent sci-fi film score. I had a little break after the LP but I’m never one to rest on my laurels, so I usually move on to the next project pretty quick. I find this helps me to stay motivated.
As a fellow English export in the USA now, I’m interested to hear how your move come about – was it music related?
ASC: Kind of. I was playing a gig in San Francisco and I met my now wife up there. I decided to pack up and move to San Diego and give it try. 10 years later, I’m still here, so it paid off.
What do you enjoy about San Diego? Does it have a decent music scene?
ASC: To be honest, the music scene in San Diego is pretty poor. Me and a few friends ran a night for about a year, called 170SD. It was to showcase the music I was pushing with Autonomic and Auxiliary. There was a small core of people who loved it, but for the most part, people never took the chance and it never caught on, so we decided to put an end to it. I love the city itself though. Life here is very laidback and that suits me a lot. I’d much prefer that to a decent music scene, as I can always travel up to LA to catch most names I have any interest in seeing.
I think it was your Resident Advisor mix that introduced me to you. I remember them using the term ‘Autonomic’ which was brand new to me at the time. Can you tell us the background to that sound?
ASC: I look back on that mix with fond memories too. It was a great showcase for the music that was happening at that time. Autonomic was a name given to what we were doing. I think Damon from Instra:mental came up with it. Anyway, yeah those guys and dBridge teamed up and started focusing on a fresh style of music, loosely associated to drum & bass. I say loosely, as it we used the framework for drum & bass, but mainly at half-tempo, but the music was influenced from 80’s synth stuff and 90’s IDM, also stuff like Kraftwerk, Drexciya etc. I’d been talking to Instra for a while and they were into what I was doing too, so I ended up working closely with them for Autonomic and recording exclusively for their Nonplus label for the duration of Autonomic. It was an exciting time for music.
It was quite exciting for me to hear something completely new at the time. When was the last time that happened to you?
ASC: I guess it kind of did with Autonomic, but since I was part of creating that sound, it never felt ‘new’ in the sense of being a listener and hearing something you had no idea existed for the first time. I think the last time that happened actually was when I heard of Chain Reaction and what Basic Channel were doing with Rhythm & Sound etc. Recently catching Voices From The Lake play a live PA in Los Angeles was a special night.
I saw them up in Seattle a few months back. Probably the best party I’ve been to for years. Are you still one for the club scene or do you keep it on the down-low now? Anyone else you’ve caught recently who blew you away?
ASC: Every now and then. If it’s someone I haven’t seen before or someone that I’m really into then I’ll usually go out or even travel up to Los Angeles to catch a show. For the most part, I prefer the quiet life and don’t go out too much these days.
You’re also synonymous with ambient music as much as the ‘Autonomic’ sound. Has ambient always played a big part in your life or is it a more recent thing?
ASC: It’s always been with me since day one. I’d gravitate naturally to the more laidback tracks and more atmospheric music and found that to be what I’d look for. I recall the first ambient track I heard was by Moby, track 4 on the Move single. That was definitely the gateway into ambient and experimental music for me. I ended up buying Moby’s Ambient LP in 1993 and being blown away by it. First time I’d ever heard this sort of music in a long player format. A year later, Global Communication released 76:14 and that killed me. Still does to this day.
So is that how you got into this type of music? What’s your production background?
ASC: I’m self-taught for the most part. I studied piano and French horn in school for a few years, but at about 12-13 years of age, I’d got heavily into the hardcore/breakbeat/rave scene that was happening all over the UK. This would have been around about 1992-1993, so yeah, I’m showing my age now! Around this time, me and few friends all started messing with tracker software on the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. I had a 1040 STE and my friend had the Amiga 500+. There were a few shareware programs floating about called Protracker (Amiga) and Noisetracker (ST). We’d sample all sorts and just try and work out how to put together loops at first. Eventually, we started making full ‘tracks’. I use the term loosely, as back then, we had no real grasp of it and were just messing around. I had this cheap sampler for my ST which you plugged into one of the side ports. The quality was so crap, but I was in awe of it back then. It just felt so exciting to be able to record samples and then put them into my own compositions. After that, I picked up a program called Trax for the ST, which was a very crude early Cubase clone, from what I recall. I started to DJ on pirate radio stations with my friend Chris and we’d spend hours dissecting the music we loved and trying to recreate ideas on our computers. I was hooked from here on and I knew it was going to be a huge part of my life.
How would you describe your productions to anyone new to your music?
ASC: That’s a really tough question to answer, as I’m constantly evolving from track to track. I’d say the emphasis is most definitely on atmosphere and usually more darker/melancholy than uplifting. I’m a bit of an emo in that respect! I prefer the sad heart-wrenching strings and pads to the ones that make people smile.
You’ve worked with some amazing artists these past few years – two of which are big heroes of mine (Ulrich Schnauss and bvdub). How did these partnerships come about?
ASC: I was into Ulrich since his first album on CCO. That really struck a chord with me, especially Nobody’s Home and Molfsee. He contacted me out of the blue one day on Facebook and wanted to buy some spare vinyl I had left over from an old drum & bass label I used to run, called Covert Operations. It turned out he was a fan of my music, which really made me happy and we struck up a good friendship. We kept in touch and decided that we’d work on some music together at some point and that’s how the 77 EP on Auxiliary came about. That EP was so effortless for both of us too. All the tracks just seemed to come together with no problems. Everything we both did worked first time and the tracks that came out are pretty much the first takes, give or take a few arrangement tweaks. We’ve talked about doing an LP together at some stage, but it’s about having the time to fit in the work that we’d have to undertake for a big project like that. We’ll see what happens!
Brock did this mix for mnmlssgs called Waiting For The World To Go By, which still, to this day, is my fave ambient mix by anyone ever. I’d met Chris from mnmlssgs while I was in Tokyo for a few gigs and we got to talking about it. He said he’d put me in touch with Brock via email, so we got to chatting pretty much on a daily basis. We started sharing a lot of music with each other and both said it would be cool to see what happens if we collaborated. I’d just started up the Symbol series with Auxiliary and thought it would be a the perfect outlet. Again, with that release, it all came about without any effort. I think that’s what happens when you get two like-minded producers with the same common goal. My work with Sam KDC also falls into this category [ASC + bvdub – Symbol #2]
I remember that mix. Stunner. Would playing live with any of these guys ever interest you?
ASC: Well, me and Ulrich did chat about performing live together when he is over here next, but again, the plan was to try and finish more material first, so we’d have more music to choose from, rather than the solitary four tracks we’ve done together so far. Again, it’s just timing and both of us are busy. It looks like the stars need to align for that to happen.
What about your relationship with Silent Season? Did you always have an ambient album in mind when you started producing?
ASC: That came about via Russell, who runs the Labyrinth festival in Japan. I’d met him playing in Tokyo also. Chris had asked me to play an ambient set at the mnmlssgs Sound Garden party they threw at Orbit in Sangenjaya. I’d played tracks from The Light That Burns Twice As Bright and the first disc of Time Heals All. Russell suggested I get in touch with Silent Season, as it would be a perfect fit for my music. Chris then put me in touch with Jamie and we’ve been working together ever since.
As for having an ambient LP in mind, not really. It was only when speaking to Brock and he was surprised that I’d never really written beatless ambient music before, so his encouragement and pushing me to do it was what really got me started. His LP White Clouds Drift On and On influenced me a great deal in terms of composition and was a good reference point for some of the early experiments I did.
‘The Light That burns Twice as Bright’ and ‘Time Heals All’ both had some rave reviews. Were you happy with how they went? And did you know you’d have another on the horizon this soon?
ASC: Oh totally. I think for people who bought both, you can definitely hear the progression from one album to the next, which I feel is important. I think as soon as Time Heals All was out and it started getting great reviews, I was already planning Truth Be Told in my mind. Like I said earlier, I never just sit back and rest on my laurels. My work ethic is such that I want to get my teeth into whatever’s next instantly, so I started to write down ideas in a notepad about ideas and stuff – most of which is nonsense if you were to see it.
What’s the idea behind your latest album ‘Truth Be Told’?
ASC: It’s a follow on from Time Heals All. A true spiritual successor and continuation of the themes from that album. I was on such a roll with Time Heals All, that it could have easily been a 3 x CD album, but I decided to curb my enthusiasm on that, because a double CD LP is more than enough for most people and perhaps too much for some. Truth Be Told picks up where that left off, with a mixture of the vibes from both discs.
So do you have a bunch of tracks still waiting to go on another release? Or do you discard them for not making the cut?
ASC: I usually start fresh with any project. If I have tracks left over, that’s what they are – leftovers. They didn’t make the cut for one reason or another, so I’ve never liked the idea of tracks that weren’t good enough in my mind, forming the basis of a new album. Incidentally, the first track on the mix is a leftover from Truth Be Told. It’s not a particularly bad track, but it just didn’t fit with the vibe of the album, so it got left out.
Can you give us an idea of how you approach your ambient albums, both in terms of the techniques you use and equipment?
ASC: It’s hard to put into words. A lot of my planning and approach for this is just floating around in my head and only makes sense when I sit down in the studio and let it all flow out. My workflow and techniques for the ambient stuff are a bit different to the more beat-laden music I write. I tend to create a lot of the pads from my synths, run them through effects units and then record them down to samples. Once I have amassed a collection of tones and other things, like background FX, field recordings etc, then I start to layer samples, adding and subtracting until the overall sound is similar to the original vision I had. I don’t think I’ve ever wrote a track that has matched the original idea I had though, as I constantly making changes, mistakes, trying other things as one sound sparks another idea etc.
Do you ever stray into unfamiliar territory? Music you never thought you’d make? Or do you try stick to a ‘style’?
ASC: Quite often. I think anything is unfamiliar territory until you’ve tried it. Over the years, I’ve written Drum & Bass, House, Techno, Electro, Ambient, IDM, Experimental/Abstract and stuff that I can’t begin to categorise. These days, I tend to stick to 3 styles, which is Ambient, Techno and whatever people want to call the Auxiliary half-tempo stuff, since it’s kinda nameless genre-wise.
As the man behind the infamous Auxiliary label, i’d love to get to know it a bit more. I’m surprised at how relentless Auxiliary releases are – you must be busy! How are you juggling it all?
ASC: I’ve slowed it down a lot this year. We’ve only done one CD release and one digital release, which was just a compilation of 3 previously vinyl-only releases. The last few years have been pretty relentless, but that’s due to the amount of insanely amazing music I had lined up by the artists involved. Going back to what I said about San Diego having a poor music scene, this is kind of a blessing in disguise, in the fact it means I have a lot more time to plan releases and juggle my own personal production work too.
And as a purveyor of finely coloured vinyl releases why do you continue this theme on the label (i know it’s expensive!) Do you see a real ‘collector’ trait with auxiliary fans?
ASC: Auxiliary was born out of the Autonomic scene and up until release phase two of the label, from 007 onwards, we’ve become our own entity. It’s gone from being on the cusp of what you could class as DJ music, to appealing just to vinyl lovers and collectors now. I think the coloured vinyl became a selling point at some stage. Labels like mine and Samurai were really doing some interesting combinations and people were reacting to it. I think it’s become very common place now and perhaps not as important. Keeping the cost down and providing the music on vinyl is the main thing. Recently, I’ve been seeing labels charging a LOT of money for say a 2 x 12″ EP and saying it’s because it’s coloured/clear mix. I know as a consumer, if I had the choice between a regular priced vinyl or the same release on coloured vinyl for 4 times the price, I’d just go for the black.
I know what you mean. I tried keeping the cost of ‘Uncharted Places’ down as much as possible, but I think people appreciated the transparent vinyl – it added to the overall aesthetic (I think anyway) I own quite a few of the colored vinyl from the ‘Symbol Series – what was the idea behind this and why did it stop?
ASC: The Symbol series was something I set up to encourage the artists I was working with for Auxiliary to focus less on DJ friendly music and stop worrying about how it would sound on a dancefloor. It was any anything-goes approach in some ways, as long as it was deep and emotional. In many ways, it was the blueprint for what the label has become now. It stopped because from a design aspect, I’d never envisioned it going beyond number 9, as I didn’t think a double digit number looked right in the design.
Wow, you hold yourself to some high standards!! So what does the future look like for the label?
ASC: The future is more about the core of the label, mainly the artists that make Auxiliary what it is. It’ll focus mainly on music by myself, Sam KDC, Synth Sense and Method One. Central Industrial and Vaccine are also key figures too, but have other commitments, so they aren’t nearly as prolific as the aforementioned artists. The future of the label is to continue doing what we do really, as there’s no other label that sounds like us, or can provide what we do and that’s important for our identity we feel.
How do you feel about running a label in today’s music industry? Do you still see them as a valuable asset despite the ability for artists to ‘do it alone’? What do you think is Auxiliary’s strongest appeal as a label?
ASC: It’s certainly a tough task, especially for the more smaller specialised niche labels, such as Auxiliary, but ultimately, it’s a still a very rewarding experience. I think labels are still important as it’s a quality control filter. Anyone can just release anything these days, especially digitally. A label is important in curating a style, a voice, a vision. When a consumer buys into that and becomes a fan, then there’s a special bond, as the label becomes important to them, almost as much as the music in a way.
So what’s next? And what’s in the future for you as an artist?
ASC: We’ve got a Sam KDC single up next, which is gonna shock a lot of people, as it’s such a different sound for Sam. It’s some of my favourite stuff he’s done though, so I’m eager to see what sort of reaction it gets. It’s definitely a darker sound for Sam, but still all the magical hallmarks of his sound. After that, we’ve got a full length ambient LP from Sam also, as well as a 12″ from Synth Sense and a bunch of other things up in the air. As for me, I’m working on a new LP for Samurai at the moment, which is nearly done. There’s also another 12″ for Samurai’s vinyl-only imprint, Horo. I think both will see a release some time this year. Other than that, I’ve been working on a film score I’m wrapping up at the moment and I’ve also got another one which I’m waiting to start on very soon. I think that’s where my future as an artist lies, or at least, that’s what I’d like to be doing more of from now on.
I think that’d be one of my dream jobs. What is it you enjoy about doing film scores?
ASC: Putting music to visuals ultimately. Being inspired by a good picture that really brings out the best in your ability is something that is truly enjoyable to me. It’s also a very different way of working for me. After 18 years of writing music in my own way, my own routines and time frames, writing to someone else’s specifications and deadlines is a welcoming challenge.
What are some of your favourite scores?
ASC: Clint Mansell – The Fountain & Moon, Vangelis – Blade Runner, Thomas Newman – American Beauty & The Shawshank Redemption, Jon Brion – Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Cliff Martinez – Solaris, Wicker Park & Traffic, Plaid – Tekkonkinkreet, Graeme Revell – Aeon Flux, Dustin O’Halloran – Breathe In.
Lastly, can you tell is a little about your isolatedmix, how it was put together and the idea behind it?
ASC: It’s a really mixed bag, starting with some ambient stuff, then it gets a little weird and experimental, a bit dark, then transitions into the Auxiliary sound near the end. It’s a showcase about what my musical ethos is really. I put it together digitally in the studio in pretty much the same way I do the Auxcasts and it features a bunch of stuff by me, Synth Sense and Sam KDC.