Billy Gomberg The experimental drone artist talks improvisation, dimensionality, and trusting his audience

For followers of experimental electronic and drone music, Brooklyn musician Billy Gomberg is likely a familiar name. With releases on esteemed, and in some cases sadly defunct, labels such as Digitalis Limited, Students of Decay, Sunshine Ltd., and Constellation Tatsu, Billy’s made a name for himself with carefully considered pieces that blend abstract ambience and electro-acoustic drone. His latest releases, Slight at that Contact (Students of Decay) and Transition (Dinzu Artefacts), are as good an introduction as any to his ever-expanding discography. In addition to his solo work, Billy and his wife, Anne Guthrie (whose solo LP Codiaeum Variegatum is one of my favorite Students of Decay releases), perform as Fraufraulein, which released a full-length in 2015 and have plans for another tape this year.

On the occasion of Slight at that Contact’s vinyl release in the last quarter of 2016 and Transition just coming out on cassette, this was the perfect time to (virtually) sit down with Billy and pick his brain over a few emails this past month.

Did you do anything fun to ring in the new year?

As parents of a five month old (at the time), we were woken at midnight by a fireworks show more or less outside our window. I think this is the first New Years we’ve actually been in our apartment for, so I’m not entirely sure this was “new,” but it was a good surprise.

With Slight at that Contact in the last quarter of 2016 and a new tape on Dinzu Artefacts, Transition, do you have more releases in store for the year? Will you be playing shows?

My dance card is full for 2017. Music for an upcoming video work by Rob Feulner on Bleu Nuit Video, eventually a Fraufraulein tape on Marginal Frequency, and a couple compilation appearances (other items are still in communication/scheduling). Something for everyone. This feels very busy this year, even if some items are already wrapped up and off my plate.

I just got invited to play a gig in April here in Brooklyn. I assume I will be playing a few more shows, but there is nothing else planned right now.

When you play live, how much is improvisation versus a reinterpretation of recently released material?

Playing live is improvisation, but not so wild as that might read. I don’t make a division between performance, recording, and practice, so I try and stay well-practiced, but I enjoy that. Technologically, there isn’t a way for me to perform a single existing track without simply playing it back. So you hear a marker of what I’m feeling and exploring at the time.

Performances (solo and with Anne as Fraufraulein) usually contain internal signposts or motivators, as abstract as poetry, aphorism or something visual, or as basic as how field recordings are lined up in a playback device or “well I’ve been playing for 20-25 minutes, time to wrap this up.”

I have to adapt to changes in instrumentation and creative ideas/problems, but I have not radically changed what I’m trying to do. Whenever I get a new instrument or change the setup a bit, the first thing I do is get it to sound close enough to what I was doing previously, a slow progression of failing to sound like the last album or period of work. Not for a lack of trying, but owing more towards curiosity, discovery, and accident.

Slight at that Contact has an understated quality that hits the sweet spot between drone and ambient. What was your approach to this record?

I think this whole process wrapped in mid-2014, so details are a bit distant for me now.

As we were discussing this record, before I started listening or recording with it in mind, Alex @ SOD [Students of Decay] referred to my earlier, more computer-based work and its origins in various electronic/noise musics etc. as something he had in mind. I had to reach back a bit, pull some baggage up to the present, unpack, and see what was still intact and useful, what would mean enough to me to then mean something to you. How would I create “X” now? Should I?

I don’t proceed with making an album from scratch, coming up with a plan or narrative program, an arc or a set of “____like this” to include and follow that until conditions are satisfied. I just want to play, to excite the connection I have with making this music. I play until it feels right, and explore wherever that is. I refine and make that place curious and comfortable for a listener, and work my way back out and have a handful of tracks with me to show for it. For Slight At That Contact, I had to do expedition a few times. My most basic parameter was a series of pieces that were self-contained and used a similar language, and emerged to the listener with a physicality.

Around the same time, Anne & I were working on Extinguishment; there are overlaps in my thinking and motivations, where complexity and simplicity meet and balance out, differences between melodic content and noise/accident/error, improvisation and editing, even if the instrumentation and final shape of these albums are quite different. I wouldn’t be surprised if I used some of the same field recordings on both albums.

I look for an ease in where my music is, how it works, its internal logic or poetry, its moods and physicality. If I’m agitated about it, forcing materials into a certain finality, that is what will be available to a listener, and I don’t think that will resonate. Considering that, really, this is abstract music; there has to be room for a listener to discover and unfold fragments of their own experience, to find an expression of their inner life, a kind of translucent connection to an interior poetry. A “shared understanding of space/meaning”* between myself and the listener — not a transaction, but a meeting, a relationship, however brief.

* From a Twitter dialogue with Nathan Thomas @ Fluid Radio

I see your Bandcamp page has one unreleased piece (park). Do you sit on a lot of unreleased work, where what we see and hear online is a tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of material you have?

I leave a lot of recordings on my hard drive, but I’m not rushing to release all of it, or even most of it. I sit down and play, practice, as often as I can. I listen through recordings and edit down to what is salient and immediate, take some ideas from that and play some more. I do a lot of recording, listening, editing, and listening again, a lot of reflection on what is working and what isn’t. Through listening over a period of time, the elements and themes of an album become clearer to me, and from there I go about assembling a collection of tracks as an album.

I released park because it’s one of the few works I have of significant duration (just under an hour), and contains choices that have been significant for me over the past 10 years. The mixing of synthesis, field recordings, amplification, and room recordings play a big role on Slight, and I started that approach with park.

You and Anne work closely with sound design and acoustics. Students of Decay releases almost exclusively on vinyl, but many listeners will hear your work digitally (Bandcamp, iTunes, etc.). Is there a happy medium between the intent of a recording versus the varied methods, and quality, of consumption (vinyl vs. cassette vs. digital)?

This is a very good question and one that has come up in conversations with other musicians. I think a good recording will communicate regardless of medium, and that’s what I work to accomplish.

Anyone listening keenly to vinyl or cassette and then a digital version (even compressed) will perceive differences, just like listening on speakers vs headphones. I trust the listener, and the best way to listen to my work is on whatever you use to listen.

Everyone’s listening technology and environment could be more ideal. We don’t have anything approaching an audiophile setup for listening, but this doesn’t reduce our enjoyment of what we listen to. I listen to cassettes on a boombox I got in 1999. The fire department just up the block can make it difficult sometimes, and our radiators make regular contributions in the winter months.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence, but I find Anne’s recent Students of Decay release, Codiaeum variegatum, pairs well with Slight at that Contact. Hers sounds like it could be performed in the middle of a forest, while yours is ideal in an abandoned factory at 3 AM. Aside from being married, and your collaborative project Fraufraulein, do you see a connection between your respective compositions?

Codiaeum does contain recordings from a forest. Maybe two. There are no actual abandoned factories on Slight, but there might be one on Codiaeum. While we work in very different ways, I think that our general creative concerns are very similar; how these meet and diverge is very interesting to us. We’ve been together since 2003, listening to and playing music has been a big part of our lives.

Anne & I have each been musicians since childhood (though she started well ahead of me), and I think we are each keen on keeping a humanity in even our most manipulated sounds, a sense that this material is formed by a human impulse and shaped by physical or sculptural means. Most evidently on Extinguishment, where Anne plays through various extended techniques on french horn, my bass guitar is prepared and played in some non-traditional ways, and set in motion with other materials, synthetic, real, and some that exist in-between.

We both have developed practices around a kind of dimensionality or perceived space without overwhelming density or busy-ness and the creation, capture, and treatment of materials that shift from being quite recognizable to uncanny and abstracted, a combination of presences existing together. As you point out, the combination of musical content with a real sense of space or place is something we have both found a rich territory.

In an era of small-run record labels proliferating online, Students of Decay stands out for not adhering to trends or whatever generates the most clicks. Alex isn’t the only person by any means, but his vision and commitment is unique. Can you shed light on your history with both Alex and Students of Decay? Will we see more releases from you and Anne on the label?

Alex and I met via one or another internet interest forum in the mid-late 00s, generally sharing similar listening habits across genres and backgrounds in literature, film, etc. Work took me through Cincinnati in 2010 and we met then, and Alex was here in Brooklyn last spring. I think it’s important to meet people in the real world when you can. I’m not going to begrudge the internet for making it easier to reach across miles and miles to have a good chat about music, books, or life in general, but a person is much more real when you have met them and shared even a brief time together. We’ve been in touch for a long time and are glad to have each other as friends.

Anne’s next LP Brass Orchids will be out from SOD this year. We have no further plans with Alex beyond that, but none of us are in a big hurry. This slice of the music world doesn’t really have a regular pace. Some things happen almost instantly, some take years… it’s very likely further work from us will be on SOD, but when and what shape it will take has yet to be discussed.

I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. One more: favorite venue in NYC? Favorite venue anywhere?

I currently couldn’t name a favorite venue in NYC. Many have closed or moved, and many more are not easily accessible to my lifestyle (dad with a day job). This is not to say that we don’t have good venues or venues that put on good shows; I simply don’t have a regular haunt or a place I’ll just hop to and catch some sounds.

The second part of your question is a tie between nostalgia and the present. I went to so many crucial gigs as a kid at the Metro in Chicago. I’d be slacking not to mention it. I don’t know how I’d feel about it now. I’ve very much enjoyed playing at Constellation a couple times, a big, accommodating venue with a nice sound and a good bar. My mom said “this is definitely the nicest place you’ve played,” and I think that’s true.

There are many great living rooms and storefronts and spaces around the country that I’ve been lucky to play in or catch a random show when passing through, some without name — maybe that was the only show that happened there. Those have all been great for me as an audience member and as a performer.

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