A cross-country move can be unsettling, let alone a move that follows the unfortunate theft of an entire studio. It's enough to make anyone pack-up again, give-up even. But then there are some who use it to channel energy to be even more creative; who use it as an opportunity for deeper expression.
Not only did Rafael finish up a festival on the other side of the country during this turbulent time, he's been quick to jump back in the studio and put his emotions to good use. A Fragile Geography is Rafael's latest full-length under the RAI moniker and his third for Lawrence English's Room 40 label; after his 2010 release The North Bend, and 2013's sublime, The Unintentional Sea.
A Fragile Geography is a personal tribute to Raf's torment over the past few years, and when such emotion is channelled into ambient or drone music, it's often a daunting, heavily-drenched, noise affair. But you should know by now that RAI is a master of sound manipulation, and channeling this type of emotion is his craft. With pure intensity, comes fragility. With a wall of noise comes waterfalls of color. With detailed field recordings, comes subtle storylines.
Empire Systems is the apex of the albums intensity, a heart-crushing crescendo that powers and rattles through your head as the minute details, static and textures bounce from sine to sine. Hiatus, channels a feeling of displacement, discern and uncomfortable ground. Persistence glimmers with hope across softly degrading melodies. Secretly Wishing For Rain, a love song from the depths of falling mountains, grey clouds and a deep haze. Some people need lyrics to convey emotion, and some just need a guitar, the patience and skill for manipulation, and the ear for fine-tuning acoustics.
With such a momentous return and a story behind it, I sent a few questions Rafael's way to get to know a little more about the album, his approach and what inspired such sounds.
Hey Raf, how’s the new studio treating you? Is it finally complete or are you looking to improve it still?
RAI: It's going really well, thanks for asking! Very busy these days, working on tons of projects- from mastering for several labels on a regular basis to mixing and remixing other artists - all while trying to finish a new The Sight Below album. 14 hour days are becoming the norm around here. But that's a very good thing: busy means working, and working means not starving. Can't complain really!
In terms of adding/improving: there's always room for this area. A studio is never 100% “finished.” It's always in flux. I've gone through several iterations of my current setup, and I only opened for business back in February, so I've been changing things around every couple of months or so.
I still have a long list of gear to reacquire, as I've prioritize to more immediate mixing and mastering gear. Eventually I'd like to build a bigger room out here in the woods, just so that I can incorporate a lot of those composing aspects I used to have in my Seattle studio and be able to write music more effectively. A piano would be fantastic, I miss that part a lot.
How’s New York? A departure from your previous home, Seattle no doubt? I’m jealous you’re getting some defined seasons over there (being in LA now I’m missing it!) Do you see your new location inspiring your music going forward?
RAI: NY is a strange place. It's been quite the cultural adjustment. Finding descent coffee in the Northeast is quite challenging, for example. We were very spoiled in the Northwest (though I reckon LA has some seriously great places – lots of Seattle & Portland transplants there). My location at this very moment is rather nice. I live away from the city in a fairly wooded area, so it's very quiet and isolated in a nice way. When I first got here, it felt a bit strange going to bed at night and not hearing any city noises – we are constantly bombarded by it in urban environments. Out here, I can open a window in my studio, clap fairly loud and hear the reverberation carry through the forest. The scenery is rather beautiful, though I reckon the weather is horribly mercurial. I miss that even keel gloominess of the PNW weather.
Your new album, A Fragile Geography, is a personal affair by the sounds of it, no doubt influenced by your last two years and the difficult times you faced regarding the studio. I’m interested to know how your mood affects your music. Do you set out with these intentions to portray, or is it more on reflection that you start to see the experiences come to life in your music?
RAI: For the longest of time, music/s been a way to cope with my own frustrations and health issues. Depression can be a powerful ally when you channel it correctly. This new album is indeed a reflection of a period of my life. There's great beauty in sadness. One could say it mirrors the general anxiety we are currently living in the United States today. Some of my earlier works reflected on the notion of a decaying American dream. Almost 10 years later since my first release, and we are living in a very tense America, one where opportunities seem to be eroding more and more which each passing day. Sometimes I look at the world and the only sensible thing to do is make a bunch of noise and let it all out somehow.
Is your music always emotionally charged? The complexity behind your music would definitely make me assume so, but I also know you’re very much a scientist, as well as an artist (with regards to your studio, production, techniques etc). How do you balance the two?
RAI: Yes, it's definitely driven by it when it comes to my own productions. Of course, when it comes to other people's music, then my focus is a clinical one. I'm doing technical work, creative still, but more focused on problem solving and making small improvements to the material I'm working on.
Whenever I listen to your music it sounds harmonious and refined, yet I can imagine given your guitar usage in much of your music, there’s some serious manipulations and tricks hidden behind what is a very simple end sound? Can you explain some of the processes or techniques used on the record?
RAI: Yeah, there's a lot of different things going on the album. Lots of heavy processing of source material. For example, the very final piece on the album, “Secretly Wishing For Rain,” was a sketch I recorded in my Seattle studio early in 2014. Just a piano improv. Sometimes I would sit on the piano and just play, from the heart, no click track, no backing tracks, no specific tempo – just whatever I'd be feeling at the time and record it. Well, since I lost all my recordings, this one should have been lost along with the rest. I just happened to have recorded it as well on my phone's voice memo. So as I was transferring files into a new phone, I discovered it. I then took the source material, processed it in the studio here in NY and composed a piece with that source material. It was a very low quality recording, so it took some time to shape it into form. After I had written the piece, my friend Julia Kent played a few cello lines on top, which then I used as source material and created many layers with her playing, which ended on the final recorded version of the song.
Are there any surprise instruments or samples on the record which might not be distinguishable to the normal listener?
RAI: One of my favorite sounds on “Empire System” is a recording of one of the biggest organs in all of Europe. I was field recording in Cologne back in 2013 and captured a Catholic sung mass. As a recovering Catholic, it was fascinating to hear this familiar ritual in a completely foreign language, German in this case, and still be able to follow it (12 years a catholic school boy). Anyway, I took a section where the organ played solo and was playing very sustained notes, so I put in my sampler later on and used it as one of the layers.
I’m sure lots of people will be surprised just how much guitar and its many manipulations plays a central role in your productions. Why is that?
RAI: I started to play guitar when I was a teenager. It's a very powerful instrument, very versatile – you can play very aggressive music, or very melodic music with it. It's punk, it's rock, it's classical, it's ambient, all in one. For the longest of time, I wanted my guitar to not sound like a guitar, but more like a synth – I can play it with a bow and get cello-like sounds from it, I can use some very light picks and a volume pedal and make it sound like some very nice Enoesque pads. As time has passed, and I've gotten older (and dumber), I've started to see the guitar in the same way one would see a module in an Eurorack – strictly a sound device. I can sound design with a guitar and a few effect pedals, record it, then load into a sampler and then continue processing in my laptop, to the point it is no longer recognizable as a guitar. It's become something else, something new, unique and very much my own. Where most people would see a limitation, I see endless sonic possibilities.
Are there any instruments you don’t play and wish you could master one day?
RAI: I would have loved to be born with a velvety voice and be able to sing. The human voice is such a fascinating instrument.
Lawrence English mastered your album and helped on a few tracks. What’s the thought process behind getting someone else to master your record (when you’re fully capable to do so?)
RAI: This may come as a shock, but I NEVER master my own music. I relish having another person listen to it with fresh ears and opine, then have a conversation on HOW it should sound. Lawrence is somebody I trust, like his aesthetic and he knows my music very well. This is very important, possibly more important than any equipment. I wouldn't want the same person that worked on the latest EDM atrocity touching my work, no matter how good they might be as an engineer or how much gear they've got – without a real connection to the music, it means absolutely nothing. It's one of the reasons why I refuse to mix or master music I do not genuinely enjoy.
Are you still learning? If so, what or who is your inspiration? Is it just through self-experimentation or are you always seeking out further knowledge when it comes to production, mastering etc?
RAI. Of course, one should never stop learning and been inquisitive. I learn a lot from my peers, my colleagues, etc. In Seattle I had a huge community of people surrounding me, many artists, etc. Here, I was expecting to be VERY isolated when I moved out here, BUT, as it turned out, I'm extremely lucky: I live now close to two other amazing engineers, Dietrich Shonemann (who cut AFG to vinyl), and Taylor Deupree (who's also an amazing artist on his own right as well, as running the 12k label). We are always hanging and exchanging ideas, discussing, testing and comparing gear, or simply just chilling out. It's nice to have a community, even when you live in the middle of nowhere.
Outside of music, what else inspires you?
RAI: Visual art is always inspiring. I'm naturally drawn to minimalist painters, and as it turn out, I live now very close to the Dia: Beacon museum, which is absolutely amazing and awe inspiring. Beautiful building with possibly the largest collection of minimalist art in the world. I also find inspiration in films, books, and history.
You’re working on a secret ASIP remix project at the moment, can you tell us how you approach remixes? Do you decide whether it’s an RAI/The Sight Below remix beforehand, or do you see what happens in the process? What defines the style?
RAI: Well, first and foremost, I must enjoy the music, or at the very least, find something, maybe if it's one element, that captivates my attention in order for me to commit to doing a remix. A remix, in my opinion, must hold the same weight as any other of my songs, sound just like any other of my own tracks, have that sonic footprint.
In regards to how I decide which musical persona: that's fairly simple, sometimes I hear something and just know, “oh, this would be a great little motif for a TSB” track. It's something that happens organically, so unless somebody actually requests a specific remix, I'll pretty much just let the process play out.
Speaking of remixes, your Unfurled Remix EP was a momentous occasion and I’m the proud owner of a copy. Can you tell us a little bit about how that was conceived and the decision to not make a digital download available?
RAI: Well, first off, thank you VERY much for the support and plonking down some serious dough for that, so much appreciated! The track itself was the last TSB song I produced at my studio in Seattle. When all this crap went down last year, Ghostly were the first people to call me up. They were like “What can we do to help?” I'll never forget, so grateful for that...Anyway, as we were discussing perks for the fundraiser they were doing, I thought this might be a good track to release and have some remixes, as I happened to have the stems for it on my laptop, possibly one of the very few things left. I asked a few friends/colleagues I like and they were all like, yeah, of course I'm on board. They all put some serious thought to it too, and all the tracks came out superb.
I really wanted to make it special and unique, so early own we decided not to make it available digitally or elsewhere, just on that specific vinyl. It's an ACTUAL Ghostly official release, with it's own catalog number, so it's canon. It's the rarest Ghostly release ever, with just 40 copies made. I'm very happy with how it came out and again, couldn't be more grateful to everyone involved in making this happen for me.
Who would you love to remix and how would you approach it? (past and present?)
RAI: From a technical standpoint: I'd love to get my hands on an original Phil Spector session or anything off the St. Pepper sessions. From a personal standpoint: I'd of course love to remix (or work in any capacity really) with Slowdive (above).
You’re a big fan of drone (#dronelife!) and seem to be amazingly knowledgable on the genre. How did you get into it?
RAI: Listening to drone music is like enjoying eating a pomegranate. You have to dig through, but it rewards in the end. It's a sonic ecosystem which requires a certain degree of time commitment – generally all things ambient aren't expressed necessarily as the usual 3 1/2 minute song. A truly acquired taste - usually only gained through a personal epiphany enabled by patience - it doesn't necessarily provide instant gratification to the casual listener.
What do you think makes a good drone record? Attention to detail? Melody? Depth?
RAI: Ambient music is a deceptively simple style – it seems as if anyone can do it at home, therefore easy to dismiss as pedantic or amateurish. And that may be true to a certain extent – it's not hard to do at all from a few technical perspectives. The important part is not so much about the ease to make, the sound quality or the performance of the musician but rather the content itself: is it distinct? Is it expressive? Is it memorable? This is why X piece of music can be a masterpiece and Y or Z total rubbish. In my view, I find a piece like “Not Yet Remembered” by Harold Budd and Brian Eno memorable, significant and impactful. I can't say the same about most music heard on commercial radio, dance clubs or elsewhere over the last couple decades. Then again, it's all in the eye of the beholder...
For anyone new to this style, who would you recommend listening to?
RAI: I'd just say, browse through my curatorial CV on my website, www.irisarri.org. Anything I've book for Substrata Festival (2011 – 2015) is a good starting point – it's a diverse ecosystem of all things minimalistic and gorgeous.
A Fragile Geography is available now on Bandcamp in digital and vinyl formats.
Listen to Rafael's contribution to Markus Guentner's upcoming album, Theia, below.