An interview with bvdub and his Earth House Hold project - Headphone Commute


This interview was originally held and posted in two parts on Headphone Commute, who kindly allowed us to republish here on ASIP.

Hey Brock, how are you? I heard you moved back to China. Can you talk about that decision?

Hey back at ya. I’m good. You are correct indeed, I have moved back. The decision came about, ironically, by the decision to move somewhere else. I’d had a weird obsession with living in Poland for some time, so after having enough of being crushed under the absurd weight of a mortgage in California for two years, in the first days of 2018 I sold my house and picked up and moved to Warsaw in the dead of winter (I’m not known for my sense of timing), knowing no one, speaking no Polish, having zero idea what it would be like to live there, and, quite frankly, having zero idea what I was actually planning to do. The abstract ideal was to live some romantic life of a musical vagabond, but, as with all ideals, instead of bringing me closer to music and basking in the inspiration and new lease on life I had envisioned, I battled the most isolated, soul-crushing, mentally destructive six months of my life. So yeah, I could say it didn’t go according to plan – but since I apparently never had a plan, maybe it did just that.

Let me be very clear. Poland is an awesome country, and a great place to live. In fact I would say it’s one of the best countries you could have the fortune of living in. But psychologically, to say it’s tough is the understatement of the century, and it held a level of isolation I never imagined in my wildest dreams. Actually I probably did imagine it, but thought it would be way cooler and more romantic than it was. Funny how it always works out that way.

I always thought of myself as someone who didn’t need other people. Prided myself on it. My friends and family are the most important things in the world to me, but I always thought I could also have them “in my life” without needing their physical presence, propped up by my lifelong sense of hubris over being someone who could spend more time alone than anyone else. That’s all fine and dandy when it’s by choice – but when isolation is literally the only option, day after day, week after week, month after month, it becomes a very different story. When you go days, even a week or more without literally ever opening your mouth to communicate with another human being, your mind eats itself alive. As I battled my own self-destruction on a daily basis with varying levels of success (i.e. very little), I began to look back on much of my life in an entirely different light, seeing the value in things I never realized before – and learned that I do, in fact, need people. People who care about me. People I care about. That I need to be loved. And love others. After 44 years of believing the complete opposite, the revelation itself was nearly as hard as the torment that brought it about. It’s never fun to realize you’re human I guess.

I couldn’t be more lucky to have so many amazing friends and family back in America who are, in fact, exactly those people. But besides the fact I’m not a self-made billionaire and thus basically can’t live in California anymore without sleeping in a ditch, years later, after the long-looming black bureaucratic cloud of the past decided to lift, I realized what – and who – I had truly left behind when I left this place the last time. People who had waited for me to come back, even when I said I never would. There’s a power in that I greatly underestimated before – one I finally realized it made more sense to fight for than against.

You could say it’s yet another time I ended up in the place I’d least expect. But with more than a third of my life lived here, I guess it all makes sense it’s a place that, in whatever weird or fucked up way, I can’t help but call home. After all these years, I realized it’s not about whether a place embraces you as its own. Hell, my own “home” never did that. It’s simply whether or not that place holds people who would miss you when you’re gone. Who would fight to have you in their life. And for whom you’d do the same. If you’re fortunate enough to have that, you’re home. Till you’re not (haha).

I want to ask about the name of this project. What does Earth House Hold mean?

It’s actually the name of an old invite-only party from back in the early mid-’90s, a really small event that only played true, raw, underground house – an ideal always in the shadows of the pervasive breaks and acid-heavy sound for which California was known.

The Bay Area, while having its share of massive events that will go down in history, was a scene largely comprised of a vast network of much smaller weeklies, monthlies, and just way more intimate, smaller parties focused on their own particular musical vision. By 1995 or so, when the scene had already gotten so commercialized that even so-called “underground” events were actually funded by sources about as “above ground” as you could get, such smaller gatherings had all but disappeared, either at the hands of people running them giving in to despair under the weight of the changing times, or simply being eaten up or destroyed by its money-hungry tactics, having their ability to throw events crippled by corrupt larger promoters calling the cops on any party within 50 miles they considered “competition,” using crooked government connections to literally shut off or rip locations down, and whatever else was at their disposal to ensure theirs was the only game in town – the latter of which happened to our parties more than once as well. Thanks, human race.

At one such large event, one of the last ones I ever went to, the guy who ran Earth House Hold was there, with his tiny stack of fliers as always, only handing them to the few people he knew were on the level. I saw him, he saw me, we nodded in each other’s direction, and he handed me a flier. And in that moment, I remembered not everyone had lost their way… at a time I needed it most, surrounded by a scene decaying by the day at the shallow hands of those who had no business being in its midst. On its last night it was, as it had always been, a super small party. A few dozen people tops. But it was still one of the best nights of my life. True. Real. How it was. How it was supposed to be. When so much else had become all it professed to rail against. There were a few other such events still fighting the good fight at the time (including ours haha), but for some reason that one always stood as a symbol for me. One I always held on to. I can’t really explain why, but I guess you never really can, right?

Lest someone accuse me of merely appropriating a name someone else created rather than taking it as the form of respect it intends, it’s also a book from 1969 by Gary Snyder (a native of San Francisco, and a lesser-known force in the beat poet movement), which features a collection of poems, anecdotes, and diary entries from a myriad of his travels throughout the world, cataloging the depth of the human experience through tribal life, connection with nature, and dance. This was, in fact, where the name of the party came from originally. Fitting on pretty much every level I’d say.

Is there a different aesthetic behind this project versus your other work?

Though some would argue my contention (and have), for me, yes. 100%. Earth House Hold is reserved purely for (what I define as) deep house. For me, the definition of deep house is very narrow – I won’t really get into that here – and the amount of people over the last near thirty years who mislabeled it has maddened me to distraction. There’s this whole supposed deep house revival lately, and while I couldn’t be happier that so many old-school cats who sacrificed everything to make it what it was are finally getting the worldwide recognition they deserve, half of what people still call “deep house” is anything but, while for the other arm of the “revival,” deep house is just about emulating (or literally just stealing) sounds you heard off a record from 1992. There’s a reason why that sound from 1992 still hits you today – because the person who hit that chord, with that synth, at that time, had a reason for doing so. They had something to say. A story to tell. Hitting the same chord again might sound the same, but it won’t mean the same thing. In fact, if you don’t have a reason for hitting it in the first place, it won’t mean anything.

Before I spiral off into an entire diatribe about that that will bore half who read it and piss off the rest, the reason I bring it up is because Earth House Hold is how I tell my story of those times, all my years in the trenches in California playing pure deep house that basically no one wanted to listen to (haha), and the path it took in changing my life forever. What true deep house meant to me. How much it was there for me. How much it taught me about life, and what it meant to be alive. Ambient (and its related forms) were always there, and as many know, I actually started (and ended) as an ambient DJ. But it was my years in deep house that truly formed who I was, and my place in music.

Though you can hear all my past in my music, Earth House Hold is reserved purely for telling very specific stories from that time through a very specific kind of music. No matter the tale, they are a very literal account of a single event from that finite period of time. It’s almost as much a travelogue through my personal history of those times as it is a way of encapsulating what true deep house was and still is to me, in my own way. I am very strict about the sounds, instruments, and even equipment I use on Earth House Hold tracks – they can only be from the period of time the tracks are describing, a big divergence from my work as bvdub, where anything goes. But rather than attempting to emulate the sounds of those times (I don’t need to, I was there), the goal is to keep that true spirit alive while still making it my own, glancing back while moving forward. So while I think it is clearly referencing those times, telling tales from those years, as that’s the whole point of the project, it’s not trying to sound like it was made then. Because it wasn’t. The point of deep house – of all this music – is and was to constantly move forward. As so much deep house of now purely looks back, I think its creators are forgetting that the music they’re emulating was doing the opposite. Maybe it’s easier to look back than face the future. I know it’s as hard for me as anyone.

When composing a piece, do you already know which project and which album it would fall under? Do you work in a particular mode with a beginning and end for each release with a purposeful theme?

I’ve said before that when working on music under bvdub, I never sit down with any predetermined idea. It might end up beatless, might be 4/4, might fly off into 160bpm breaks at the end. I never know, and I never want to know. Earth House Hold is different. As it’s so literally linked to something specific, it requires a bit of a different head space to create. It’s as much or more about a time than an emotion. If that makes sense, since obviously you can’t really separate the two.

So unlike my other work, yes, when I sit down to make an Earth House Hold track, I sit down to make an Earth House Hold track.

Like with all my work, everything is made from note one to the last, in order, and I already know the story I want to tell. Just like the rest of my work, the album name is written first, then the track names, in order, all before note one. So I already know what I want to say, and how many parts it will take for me to say it. How exactly it gets said, is, quite frankly, as much up to my heart as my other stuff, so I don’t have rigid guidelines of something having to be this tempo, this key, 4/4, broken, etc. What happens happens. In fact for the most recent album, many of those tracks are radically different from what I thought I was sitting down to make. But as always, that’s the beauty of it. And what ends up happening is what was meant to be. Your head may have had one idea, but your heart had another. The latter always beats the former.

At times it can prove quite a challenge, as I might start drifting off into something that wouldn’t fall under my own guidelines for the project, and have to rein myself back in. Which kind of negates what I just said about my heart always winning out over my head. So ignore that I guess (haha). But for me, Earth House Hold has to be made a certain way, and sound a certain way, in a sense, to do what it was intended to do. It’s not easy to work in a narrower scope when nowadays the world is basically your oyster, but in a way the restriction is also strangely liberating. Which makes about as much sense as the rest of my assessment.

The titles of Never Forget Us read like a poem. Can you please share some thoughts behind those words?

I tend to not go into meanings behind titles, not because I don’t want to share what it all means – in fact, I’d like nothing more – but because I think trying to use more words to explain a few words you used to label something that’s basically beyond words in the first place is, basically, impossible. At the risk of sounding trite, the story is in the music. For me, that’s why I make music in the first place – to say all the stuff I can’t say with words, which is a hell of a lot.

Until you mentioned it, I never really thought of them reading like a poem. Nothing wrong with that (haha). I guess the reason for that is the fact they were written out at one time, before I made the album, but more importantly because they deal with a very specific couple years or so in my life, in a very chronological order – much like a poem often attempts to sum up its meaning in the same chronological way. Anyone who’s talked to me in person can attest I have to be the least poetic person on the planet unless you consider cursing to be a form of poetry (which it kind of is). How it all comes out so nicely when I write it down is beyond me (haha).

The album notes open up with a quote by Anselm Kiefer: “But I believe above all that I wanted to build the palace of my memory, because my memory is my only homeland.” How do you resonate with these words?

Good or bad, my memories are my home. Anyone who knows me knows of my eternal search for a home – or homeland… not just some piece of dirt you stand on, but where you feel you belong. Where you were somehow meant to be. Which maybe, quite honestly, is nowhere. But only through my memories can I ever feel at home – sadly, always in hindsight.

Last year I was diagnosed with obsessive rumination disorder – the kind in your head, not the one where babies spit up food (haha). I always knew I had problems dealing with the past, or more specifically, letting it go, but it had gotten to the point where it was becoming so overwhelming I was having trouble even performing basic functions in the present. My inability to escape literally being trapped in loops of the past had become as or more overpowering as my previous battles with depression or even OCD, I guess not surprisingly, as all three share the same root problem, at least for me, in that I have serious issues with control. That in itself wasn’t exactly a news flash, but I really hadn’t realized the extent to which they’d taken over everything in my life, forcing me into the corners they had. It was, admittedly, a pretty traumatic process facing a lot of that stuff as head on as I was forced to through the cold mirror of psychiatry and its oh so welcoming offices, but one I learned a lot from. And no matter how horrible, anything that helps you take yet another step toward truly knowing who you are is always worth it. Though I think you rarely feel that way ’till after it’s in your rear-view mirror.

So yeah, pretty much all I resonate with is memory. For better or worse. For me, it’s apparently the latter.

I wish I could look through those pin-hole photos displayed on the cover of the album. What are your thoughts on the relationship of photographs to memories and, most importantly music to memories?

Those photos have a very special meaning to both memory and the album, as they were taken by my very dear friend Mamii in Tokyo, on cameras she made herself, telling the story of her own life, and her own journey through it, both emotional and physical. It was a long process, between her travel to so many different locations that represented so much for her, to making different cameras for numerous different locations to ensure each photo truly represented her own memory, to developing each one by hand. The end result is a collection of images about as drenched in the concept of memory as you could possibly ever hope to get. She, like me, has an incredibly strong relationship to memory and the past, though in an infinitely more healthy manner (haha), and everything about the way she approaches seeing and investigating the world and her life around her has always been a thing of absolute beauty to me. It’s an honour she was willing to share so much of her life for the album, and the idea behind it. She is really one of the most beautiful human beings I will ever have the fortune of knowing.

Mamii in Tokyo with the Earth House Hold record (taken by Ryan/ASIP)

Mamii in Tokyo with the Earth House Hold record (taken by Ryan/ASIP)

I’m a big fan of everything that Ryan curates for A Strangely Isolated Place. Is there something that you look for in a label when choosing which one will represent your release?

Who isn’t? (haha). In answer to your question, no, not really. Obviously, I have my family of labels and friends I tend to work with and create especially for, but sometimes I’m already working on or have finished something and a label will happen to reach out, and if it fits both of our visions to put it out together, then awesome. If not, so be it. I don’t make anything specifically to try to fit any label (never have), nor will I change anything to fit their ideas – a concept that has gone over like a lead balloon on many occasions, and prevented numerous albums from getting released on this label or that. But for me, if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be. Either our planets align, or they don’t. If so, perfect. If not, plenty of planets out there, both discovered and otherwise.

For me, labels, like everything in life, are about the people behind them. Assholes running labels isn’t relegated purely to big ones. There is a surprisingly massive amount running ones barely anyone’s ever heard of as well. And some of the biggest ones are run by some of the kindest, sweetest, truest people you will ever meet. I would say it’s down to luck who you’ll come across, but surrounding yourself with good people brings more good people your way. And while I’ve had the misfortune of knowing some serious assholes in the world of music and labels, I’ve had much more fortune knowing some of the best people I’ve ever known, and the best friends I’ll ever have. I forget the bad ones a day later. The good ones I remember forever.

With Ryan, we had in fact spoken ahead of time about me doing an album for A Strangely Isolated Place – actually we’d spoken about it many times, but for one reason or another, it didn’t seem to happen, admittedly I think much more on my part than his. When the time was finally right and I sat down to make the album, I originally hadn’t thought of it being Earth House Hold – and I can tell you he expected it even less (haha). But for some reason, it just felt right. I had been wanting to do a second Earth House Hold album for years, but it had just never felt quite like the right time. So when the time finally came, I rolled with it. In fact, I couldn’t have been happier. Whether Ryan would share my joy was another issue (haha). Thankfully he did.

We have a lot of common history in our love of deep house, though at different points in its timeline, which actually makes for an even more interesting relationship on the subject, and more importantly, I know he gets behind what he loves. It doesn’t matter what it is, or how people want to label it. I knew it was a bit out there to say I’d do an album for him, purposely not telling him it was going to be under Earth House Hold, but I had faith he would get it and love it as much as I did. Actually, though he couldn’t help but admit his surprise on receiving what he assumed would be an ambient bvdub album, he also fell in love with it from note one. I couldn’t have been happier, and I knew it had the perfect home. Thankfully, as I did the whole thing just for him (haha).

Looking back at the last past years – what [musical] moment in your career stands out the most?

At the risk of sounding trite once again, I can’t think of any musical moment that hasn’t been important. They’ve all meant a lot to me in different ways. But I think what I would call “full-circle” moments have been the most amazing… playing shows with artists whose music I’ve been buying for decades, being part of labels I used to drive hours to buy releases from 25 years ago, getting to sit down and have dinner or beers with people who back in the day I would never in a million years imagine I would even meet, much less be counted among their ranks, it’s something that never ceases to amaze and humble. To somehow go from being a fan of people’s music to, decades later, being one of their peers, is really something I can never properly put into words. So I guess it’s one, long moment, really… the music I loved and love above all else – literally – for most of my life, I can say I was truly part of. I pledged my life to this music nearly three decades ago… and now, somehow, all these years later, I can say I’m part of its history, no matter how small. Even if I’m just a footnote, I’m there. And even that footnote will be there, long after I’m gone, as proof of my love. Proof that I kept my promise. I literally don’t know what more I could ask for.

What are you working on right now?

Earlier this year I completed two albums, Drowning in Daylight on Apollo (speaking of full-circle moments), and another I had been working on long before I moved that will be out early next year (tba), before music slipped away from me, quite honestly, as my whole life basically slipped out of my grasp in Poland. Depression can be your best friend or your worst enemy… and as anyone with such afflictions will tell you, there is a fine line between such states inspiring you to create, and overtaking you to the point where literally nothing matters.

Now back in China, I’ve completed a new album I will self-release through Bandcamp at some point in the near future for a charity endeavor very near and dear to my heart, and directly related to the album itself, which of course has a complex story behind it (shocker) that I’ll save for then. And no, this time it’s not about cats.

My mental erosion in Poland, while not exactly a barrel of monkeys at the time, gave me a lot to think about – my place in the world, my own life, and this music. There was a definite time I questioned if I had any place left in any of them anymore… anything left to give. It’s not exactly the first time I’ve wondered what it all means and how I can go on, only to remember once again that 28 years after pledging my life to this music, it’s a promise without an escape clause.

So with that realization imbued once again, my life begins yet again in the place it’s begun and ended so many times before, and, not for the first time, my further detachment from the world of music somehow only brings more inspiration… perhaps at the hands of more remembering that which is even farther away, now both in space and time. The same remembering that takes away as much as it gives. If not more.

Earth House Hold / Never Forget Us is now available.