William Fowler Collins: Interview
“A candy colored clown they call the sandman tiptoes to my room every night.”
My first experience with William Fowler Collins’ work was his 2009 album Perdition Hill Radio, which I reviewed last year for Tiny Mix Tapes, where I called it “a soundtrack for going under.” The drones and frictions evoked images of the simultaneity of Western expansion and destruction, the perpetual movement of a chimerical beast that devours itself just as it does everything else. With a cassette out this year on both the Root Strata and Digitalis Industries labels, and a CD with fellow Albuquerquean Raven Chacon for their Mesa Ritual collaborative project, Collins has had a productive year as he continues to explore the darker regions of humanity’s sonic consciousness.
Over several email exchanges and late-night gchats, we discussed his musical education and development, his music’s filmic and dystopian qualities, and his new and upcoming releases and projects.
What’s the most recent great record you acquired and why’s it so great?
That would have to be Krzysztof Penderecki’s Utrenja. I’ll spare you the extensive review, as I think his comment from the liner notes sums it up best: “Utrenja is a combination of pure a capella vocal writing and orchestral effects (for strings and percussion) very much connected with electronic music.” Part one is called “The Entombment of Christ” and part two is “The Resurrection of Christ.” I’ve recently become more interested in vocal sound and this has some dense, textural choral music in addition to its surging strings and blasts of percussion. I’m a huge fan of Penderecki’s work. I love its chilling, terrifying qualities. I find it thrilling to listen to. When I heard this on WFMU recently (Bryce played a vinyl version in its entirety) I immediately searched out a copy to buy. I’ve also been enjoying Deathspell Omega’s Fas — Ite, Maledicti, In Ignem Aeternum and Nihill’s Krach and Grond albums quite a bit lately.
You finished your MFA at Mills College in 2004. Who did you study with and who had the most impact on your development as an artist?
I think they all helped me grow. Maggi Payne helped me to fine-tune my listening and mixing skills, Chris Brown introduced me to Supercollider and early American musics, Fred Frith encouraged me to take my own path, David Bernstein exposed me to the world of 20th century composers, [and] Annie Gosfield helped me refine my noisier endeavors with the guitar. They all played a role. I think I was starving for the opportunity and I was at a point where I could really apply myself. I had a great time. At Mills I discovered AMM, Giacinto Scelsi, Penderecki, Henry Cowell, Maryanne Amacher. I began to investigate Indian Classical Music. Those are but a few. The list could go on and on.
I’ve heard many horror stories from people entering music programs, namely those grounded in a more rigid traditionalism, but always great things from Mills alumni. You’re currently teaching at University of New Mexico, right? What courses do you teach? Are there a lot of shared musical interests between you and the students or faculty?
Right, many of the schools can be more traditional, elitist, and conservative. I’m sure that Mills is the only place that would have accepted me. When the course is offered, I am an adjunct instructor of Sound Art in the Electronic Arts area of the Art & Art History Department. The students I’ve had generally do not have musical backgrounds and some do not have a background in art, either. I expose them to a huge amount of new material that is usually completely new to them. There were times when we listened in class for close to two hours. Turn the lights off, get comfortable, and listen. I’ll start with Luigi Russolo and end up in contemporary sound art, covering John Cage, Maryanne Amacher, Merzbow, and many more along the way. Some come to the class thinking that “sound art” is a fancy way to describe music so I try and get them to find their way from music to sound. I also teach them to work in a multi-track recording environment [Pro Tools], and their final projects can be recordings, installations, or performances.
“I have mountains directly behind my house to the east, and to the west is a view of expansive desert with inactive volcanoes. These vast, primitive landscapes are intense and they can certainly be inspirational.”
A few weeks ago I was working the door at a Merzbow performance in Philadelphia and this older man asked me if there was a construction project going on behind the doors. I responded with a “Yes, you should go check it out.” He exited several minutes later with a confused expression and shaking his head. Are there any memorable Merzbow reactions from first-time listeners in your class?
I’ve seen Merzbow a couple of times now. It was a relentless, punishing barrage of sound. My class wasn’t disturbed by the Merzbow I played for them. I was a little surprised. Blank stares. They reacted more strongly to Cage’s “4’33”.” “This is bullshit!” some exclaimed. A few were a bit outraged but we talked through it.
Why do you think they were more terrified, challenged, or bothered by silence than noise?
I think they reacted like so many have since Cage premiered the piece. Some people have fixed ideas about what music should be and this wasn’t it. They were suspicious at first. Also, some of the students are involved with musical projects even though they aren’t majoring in the field, and noise wasn’t anything new for them. From what I’ve witnessed, the noise genre today is fairly easy to enter into for all kinds of people. It might be similar to what punk had going for it in its early days. Start a band before you’ve been trained. Jump in with both feet and make something happen your own way. That’s exactly how I got involved with music over 20 years ago.
So was it punk that initially sparked your creative urge? What were some of the most foundational bands for you?
Hendrix and punk, yes. The Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols, P.I.L., Butthole Surfers, Minor Threat, Black Flag. Those were big for me when I started actually playing the guitar. John Zorn’s Naked City project really spun my head because it juxtaposed hardcore, metal, jazz, and country.
So I just listened to Utrenja. This would be a chilling live experience. The percussion really adds a great momentum to the spectral vocal parts. I couldn’t help but think of Bergman’s Seventh Seal while listening, not just because of his use of choral music for the score, but the entire point of view of the film. Do you know if anyone has presented it recently?
I’d love to see it performed live. I have no idea if it has been done recently. I believe he’s conducted it himself, though. Utrenja and other music by Penderecki are used in The Shining.
Your music has a very cinematic quality or at least provides an invitation to visuality. Have you ever composed music specifically for film?
Not in the traditional sense where music is at the service of what is happening in the film. I’ve worked in a live context with a filmmaker named Paul Clipson, who makes films using a Super 8 camera. I would be giving a live solo guitar performance while he’d be projecting a film on the screen behind me. For our appearance together at Courtisane Festival in Ghent, he provided me with footage before the concert and I played along to it in my studio a few times to give myself an idea of what direction to go in. He preferred that I avoid trying to match the music tightly with the film. The unexpected moments where things sync up by chance are what appeals to him more, I think. I’ve also worked with artist Claudia X. Valdes on a project entitled “Jornada del Muerto.” I created 40 minutes of guitar music that has four distinct 10-minute sections. She then created a video piece for each section of the music. She mixes the video live on the stage with me as I am performing. Those are the projects in which I’ve worked with the moving image thus far. Given the right situation, though, I would be interested in creating music for film.
Are there any directors, dead or alive, you’d particularly like to work with?
Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and David Lynch come to mind immediately. I also like the Western genre, so Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah would be another two. I like what the Coen brothers did with No Country for Old Men, and contributing to a worthy adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel could be interesting.
On Perdition Hill Radio both the sounds and song titles evoke haunting, apocalyptic images. Were you inspired by the desert and mountainous landscapes of New Mexico, or was the world motivating the sounds more imaginary?
The landscapes here probably influenced the work in a subconscious way. I have mountains directly behind my house to the east, and to the west is a view of expansive desert with inactive volcanoes. These vast, primitive landscapes are intense and they can certainly be inspirational. As with all of my recordings, I feel that a number of factors could potentially influence the work somehow. These could be personal experiences, books or films, major events happening in the world such as war. The title “Grave Robbing in Texas” refers specifically to the opening sequence of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, but I wouldn’t say that the album as a whole is about the horror associated with that film. With Perdition Hill Radio I chose to work within a darker theme, and it developed from my imagination. For me, there’s as much sadness as there is darkness in that album.
“From what I’ve witnessed, the noise genre today is fairly easy to enter into for all kinds of people. It might be similar to what punk had going for it in its early days. Start a band before you’ve been trained.”
What instruments and equipment were used for that recording?
Electric guitar, resonator guitar, effects pedals, micro-cassette recorder, and the AM radio from an old Sony Walkman. The software I used was Supercollider 2 and Pro Tools.
This year you’ve released two limited-edition cassettes (Enter The Host on Root Strata and Hiding In Light on Digitalis). Are you using the same gear as on Perdition Hill Radio, or are there significant additions and/or subtractions?
With Enter the Host things were a bit different. I used a shruti box as my primary instrument. I used two microphones on each take, recording about a half-dozen tracks worth of material for each side. One mic was sent through effects pedals and the other was clean. With Side B I went to tape with some of the tracks and played them back from my 1970s Nakamichi tape deck, recording the results. Hiding in Light uses much of the same gear as Perdition Hill Radio with the addition of the tape decks, lap steel guitar, and a goat hoof shaker I got in Chile.
In the middle of Side B on Hiding In Light there’s a distinctly percussive sound. What’s going on there?
I believe you might be referring to a rough recording of a drum I got from the Taos Pueblo. Recording this drum to tape and pitching down the results can create a massive, thunderous quality.
It seems like Enter The Host is much more tranquil and contemplative, while Perdition Hill Radio is frequently overpowering and horrifying. Hiding In Light, in contrast, seems to return to the menacing, dystopian landscapes explored in the latter. How are these three records sonically and thematically different or similar? Do you see them as distinct recordings or overlapping in some conceptual way?
I do see them as distinct recordings, but there is likely some overlapping, as they were all completed within the last three years. I have an affinity for Indian classical music, and with Enter the Host I wanted to experiment somehow with an instrument found in that genre. The shruti box, to me, seemed to be the right instrument for my purposes. Indian classical music is intriguing for me because the musicians in that field that I enjoy the most, such as Z.M. Dagar, are contemplative and immersed in the moment as they are playing. On some level I’m attempting, with all of my music, to engage the listener and pull them inside the music. Hiding in Light is the most recent of the recordings you mention and is perhaps a new route through the dystopian landscapes you’re hearing. I try and cover new territory in the most natural way possible. I like to take my time and see where things are headed. I’m not currently interested in undergoing a radical re-invention with each release.
You also released a collaborative record with Raven Chacon. Did you know him before your move to Albuquerque or was it initially a random encounter? What did that project entail?
No, I didn’t know Raven before I moved here. I didn’t know anybody and so I did some digging in an attempt to find other musicians with similar interests. I sent him my first CD and we became friends after that. Our duo is called Mesa Ritual and we’ve been experimenting mostly with electronic music. Most recently our live sets have required the use of larger sound systems with exceptional subwoofer capability. This isn’t high volume for the sake of high volume but rather an attempt to enhance the physicality of the sound. We have one release out on Raven’s Sicksicksick label called Voltaic Processions. We plan to complete a full length and find another label to release that when it is ready.
“Maggi Payne helped me to fine tune my listening and mixing skills, Chris Brown introduced me to Supercollider and early American musics, Fred Frith encouraged me to take my own path, David Bernstein exposed me to the world of 20th century composers, [and] Annie Gosfield helped me refine my noisier endeavors with the guitar.”
What’s the underground scene like in Albuquerque? Are there supportive spaces and listeners for outside music?
The underground is the best part of the music scene here. It is small, like most of these types of communities are, but there’s enthusiasm and a hunger for experimentation. DIY spaces open and close with regularity. There have been some amazing shows here outside of the rock/bar scene. I founded and curated a series here from 2008-2009 and had acts such as Barn Owl, Metal Rouge, Sun Circle, and Malcolm Goldstein come through to play it.
Do you have any other collaborative projects planned?
Not long ago I finished a collaborative album with Mike Bjella (GOG) for Utech Records. That will be out next year. I’m currently working with Jenks Miller (Horseback) on an album. Looming on the horizon is a collaborative album with Aaron Turner [Mamiffer, House of Low Culture, Isis, etc.] and an album with Steven Hess [On, Ural Umbo, Pan American, etc.]. If time allows there’s an album with Xela to work on as well. In the midst of all of this I’m in the process of working on my second solo album for Type.
A friend recently recommended Horseback’s The Invisible Mountain and I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since. That should be a great project. When you dream about collaborations, who are you working with?
Right now I’m just focusing on all of the projects I just mentioned. There’s plenty of work to be done. I’m grateful to be working with all of these people and also with the labels that have been supportive of my music. We’ll have to wait and see what happens but I hope I can continue to work with artists of this caliber in the future.
So your dreams are real?
A candy-colored clown they call the sandman tiptoes to my room every night.