“It’s good to be prolific, and it’s good to always be playing; however, I think you’ve gotta have a lot of discretion.”
Exploring organics through technology is nothing particularly groundbreaking, but there really is something distinctive about this process for Ohio drone band Emeralds. Somehow, their distinctly transcendent noise is at once cosmic and oakey, shrouded in tape fuzz and dissonance. I don't mean to sound all superlative or press release-y about that fact (there are enough others applauding this), but it's intriguing just how this Cleveland trio manages to weave their personalities together with those handspun synths, guitars, and sequencer rhythms.
Within international noise and drone circles, the success of these three musicians -- Mark McGuire, Steve Hauschildt, and John Elliot -- may seem to have come pretty quickly, but like many of their peers, the earliest part of their catalogue stretches back 20 or so cassettes and CD-Rs. There's a lot more discretion used these days, preferring "proper" full-length releases, like last year's Solar Bridge (TMT Review), as well as their latest release, What Happened (No Fun Productions) and their forthcoming self-titled expected sometime this year on Hanson.
I used my MacBook to phone Steve Hauschildt (thanks Skype!), Emeralds' analog synths and sequencer player, who also exhibits his own solo explorations into cassette textures and alien spaces. It was actually kind of appropriate speaking into my shiny whiet piece of technology, as that's where I most inappropriately have listened to many of his and Emeralds' cassettes. He was in the middle of studying for finals, but had a lot to say about variations in medium, working processes, prolificacy, and what constitutes that uniquely Emeralds-y sort of drone.
Is the way you guys generally work getting together and improvising and cutting the best bits from that for the records?
Yeah, well, we've been a band for about two-and-a-half years, and for the most part, we used to record and practice in that manner of just improvising and then working out different parts. However, with the new record that we're about to release, we did it track-by-track as opposed to improvising it, and then we kind of had to go back and figure out how we're going to actually play the songs live. Now, the record I'm referring to is our self-titled one, which isn't gonna come out until 2009 at some stage. We're putting out the vinyl of that one ourselves, and Aaron from Hanson Records is gonna be putting the CD version out. But anyway, the recording process that we're doing now is totally different to what we did when we made Solar Bridge. That was completely improvised, whereas this was done piece-by-piece, part-by-part, where someone works out a part and then we record it and then arrange it... well, I dont know how to say it exactly, but intuitively, I guess. It's like, an intuitive arrangement. And if you have different parts going on, it's hard to replicate in a live environment, because we're a band that does improvise live. We're trying to come to a certain consensus where we can actually have a basic framework within which we can work and then be able to improvise within that.
And that would perhaps enable you to build upon those original works and see where they flow. I guess improvisation is the most common way that noise or drone acts record, though. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, it's true. It's good to be prolific, and it's good to always be playing; however, I think you've gotta have a lot of discretion, especially if you're falling into those genres like noise and drone. But there's a tendency for some labels -- and I'm not saying it's bad in every case -- for people to release everything that they record. I mean, we were kind of guilty of that when we first started; we always did withhold certain recordings, but for the most part, we just put out everything that we had. It's a good way to get your music out there, but I think once you're a bit more established, it doesn't make that much sense to put everything out there that you've recorded.
Totally, I think you're right. It's a good thing in some respects, being that prolific, because you can hear different facets of bands and them at different stages.
It's also really good because it creates a traceable history of a band, so people can actually see their development. It's good in that way if you're actually interested in a band and you want to understand how their music is developing over time. It's kind of like a map of that. It's still better to have your specified full-length releases, if you wanna call them that, as designated to be your more serious releases that are up for being critiqued, if you wanna call it that. There's a problem, though, with doing a lot of tapes and working on that kind of medium, because I think that it sounds good a lot of the time and it has its own aesthetic and quality of sound and what not, but one thing that I've found, there are people who are listening to our music, they put it onto the internet, and sometimes it'll be like a third or fourth generation version of the original tracks themselves. So there's a huge loss of quality between the original tracks to what people are actually hearing when they are downloading our music, which isn't the intended format.
It's interesting, because I mean, to be honest, most of the recordings of you guys that I've heard have been downloaded onto my Macbook, so it's different having it come from this shiny, pristine white thing, than, say, out of an old boom box. There's a whole new and changed context placed onto it, listening to this “cassette,” or what once was a cassette. Like, listening to Rapt For Liquid Minister, I've got it on MP3 on my iPod and on cassette that I play in this beat-up '90s boombox.
In that case, there was a similar thing occuring where I had originally recorded the tracks of that to my computer, so there was originally very little loss of fidelity until I sent them off to Arbor and he put them on tape. I'm not saying he did a bad job dubbing them or anything -- not at all -- it just changes the quality when you put it onto a tape. So, I still have the tracks; I'm going to be doing this limited LP for Digitalis, and it's just this series of cassette reissues on LP that are going to be super limited. He's doing my Rapt For Liquid Minister as one of those, so that's pretty cool.
"We're trying to come to a certain consensus where we can actually have a basic framework within which we can work and then be able to improvise within that."
Well, there are a couple of things I was keen to ask you about the medium of cassettes. With that solo cassette of yours, and with Emeralds in general, there seems like there's always a big emphasis on spacey kind of sounds, but in this really organic, woody kind of way. Like, this scuffed up kind of futuristicness.
It's always an important decision to consider the medium that it's actually going to be heard on. With some of the early Emeralds stuff, where we were recording straight to tape, we were getting more comfortable with the sound that it produces, this warmer sound. The more you're getting familiar with the sound of a cassette tape and the way that things sound on it, you can kind of work with it and even play it, per say. I think there are a lot of textures that can be explored and that have been by other groups.
It seems like an interesting way to explore some kind of shiny, cosmic textures, with this soft/warm kind of retro medium of a tape. There's often this slight sort of transcendence that comes with that for me. Were there any particular sort of pursuits in that department you were trying to pursue with that sound?
Yeah, well I've just been trying to get more confident at playing on an actual keyboard. I have a natural sense of rhythm, but I never took traditional piano lessons or anything like that. My knowledge and ability is something that I aim to do on my own, so a lot of the stuff I've been doing lately has been trying to become more confident in my actual playing ability while still utilizing all of my technology and electronics and stuff like that, which will coincide with my actual rhythmic component of my playing. There are always so many different approaches that you can take, as far as the structures of a song go, and it's hard to confine yourself -- there are so many different possibilities. We're still pretty young as a band and as musicians, so we're still trying to establish a recognizable or, you could say, just a more established sound. I think a lot of bands have that problem, coming to something where, okay, when you're listening to a song or a record, you can tell that it's that band when you hear it. I think that's really important if you're a band that wants any kind of longevity, to have music that actually has a personal quality to it, which is recognizable and can be associated with your band and what ideas you're trying to put across. With Emeralds, we bring ourselves into the music itself; I think that comes out. Just the nature of it being a trio, three of us playing, the nature of that means there's a lot of different interplay. It's interesting how you can see our personality coming out even in just the way we're playing our instruments. There's sometimes a lot of tension, sometimes some parts where it locks in and seems that there's more cohesion. When you're improvising, these aren't necessarily conscious things that are happening, but something that definitely needs to be thought about.
I feel like with Emeralds, even if a lot of your recordings are quite stylistically varied from each other, there's always this human kind of feel that comes through, something distinctively Emeralds. Kind of this warm or muffled kind of grandeur.
Actually, for the Wire article that will be running soon, I was talking about this article I read by Stephen Davies where he was talking about this phenomenon in instrumental music, where there's really no human voice or any kind of literary reference or anything like that, how there can still be an emotional or personal quality to that music. I dunno. I think that our music is really a result of human beings playing it and the certain instruments we choose to play; older analog instruments bring an interesting quality to the sound. It's an interesting contrast, because it's a mixture of the organic and the electronic, which I think certain groups have explored in the past, and it's been pretty effective, so I think it works out pretty well. There's always times where it doesn't, but yeah.
Definitely, this is what I was meaning before, like this handmade or personal approach to technology and how it sounds. With that humanism that can kind of come through with instrumental music like Emeralds' -- is that a facet of making music that you seek to explore?
I think it was kind of a natural thing, just the way we started playing together. Even before Emeralds, it seemed like there was this collective vision that we had of what we wanted our music to be and the direction we wanted it to go in. It was just we didn't really have the resources or the equipment to really make it come to fruition. We're still always acquiring new gear. As far as that futuristic element, I mean, when you're using sequencers and things like that, which is something we do a lot on the new record, it gives it this really mechanical, rigid quality. There's always a difference between playing something by hand, with the human hand, or having a machine play something for you. I think there's a lot of possibility for interplay within those two different aspects as well. We're still trying to come to some sort of middle ground with that, where the personal is still evident, even with different things going on. And we're trying to integrate this into our live show as well. It's a constant process; it's always evolving. With the nature of improvisational music, it's always hard to have many many instruments working together, even just logistically lugging all that stuff around.
People do often say that thing of like, "Oh, it's made with a computer but it still sounds so human," but a lot of the time, it's pretty obviously made by a computer. If using that older gear came out of monetary necessity, do you still prefer using that to computers? I mean, do you use them at all with Emeralds?
We don't use any computer programs in the actual music, but we have recorded directly to a computer. We did that with Solar Bridge, so once it's there and once it's mastered, I think that's our music when it has the most clarity, when we record it that way. There are certain disadvantages with that. I mean, computers are useful for a lot of different things, but I don't really see that they have that much relevance to a project like Emeralds. If we were to use Max MSP or something, it would just completely sound different. The thing is, when you're playing music from a laptop, you can always tell; it's always evident. Anyone with a trained ear can tell when you're playing from a laptop, compared to analog equipment. That's not to say one particular approach is better than the other. I just think, for this project, we definitely don't have a need for that sort of stuff.