Earthen Sea Jacob Long talks new album “Grass and Trees” on Kranky

Photo: Alex Phillipe Cohen

As Earthen Sea, Jacob Long explores the vast sonic textures at the crossroads of techno, ambient, and experimental electronics. After logging time in vital hardcore and dub-punk projects such as Black Eyes and Mi Ami, Long has set out a path of his own as Earthen Sea. Across several EPs and two full-lengths, the most recent being June’s Grass and Trees (out now via Kranky), Long has dabbled in the push/pull dynamic of icy tech house and ambient interludes (see 2017’s An Act of Love) while recently mining brighter yet subtle ambient grooves (Grass and Trees). The recent results are understated and oftentimes gorgeous.

To get a glimpse of his backstory and approach to crafting his sounds, Jacob and I traded emails in the wake of Grass and Trees’s mid-June release.

What have you been up to between the release of An Act of Love and your new record, Grass and Trees?

What have I been up to? Somehow a couple of years passed without it really feeling like that. When that record came out, I had just been in New York for a few months, so spent some time getting settled here. But other than that, really just working on music, exploring ideas, figuring out where I wanted to be going and then spending a lot of time making sure I was happy with the results. Other than that, just living, making some art, and riding my bike and skateboarding when I can.

A 2017 Bandcamp interview touched on your first album being inspired by the night time, and especially walking around at night in New York or San Francisco. Does that “manic energy of being out super late” in NYC, as you said in that piece, still influence your music?

It can be hard to really parse what influences things sound-wise. There definitely is a different energy to life in New York in general that is different than San Francisco, as well as the big differences in landscape, weather, overall vibe that I find has an effect on my overall being, which has to in some way seep into what I’m making creatively. I’m not totally sure, but I guess there is something to what that brings out of the music; I think there are two things that are kind of opposite reactions to those things… one is that, in comparison, especially my new music is much brighter and more colorful than it was before that could definitely be inspired by it being much lighter here in comparison to SF; the other is that that manic energy here seems to have had a calming effect on my music, needing to create something that puts me in a place that is in opposition to what is going on all around much of the time.

An Act of Love sounded like a mix of icy tech house with ambient interludes, whereas Grass and Trees sounds like an extension of the latter: a floaty, beatless exploration stretched out over 40 minutes. How did you approach this new record, and what did you learn from your first album that informed Grass and Trees?

Well, a few things happened with my creative approach/interest in terms of […] songwriting/sound/etc at a few points between the two records. I would say the first is that I was making some tracks that sort of build on the processes/sound I had developed in writing An Act of Love, and at some point, I just kinda felt uninspired by it or at a creative dead-end with it, so I sort of didn’t make anything for a little while. The funny part is I was actually really inspired by coming across a new piece of software (a specific kind of sequencer) that really intrigued me, so I spent quite some time figuring out how it worked/how to use it, and that process really started by making tracks that were almost entirely drums/rhythm tracks. I made a bunch of those and then was sort of blending those in with some of the other sample/sound approaches I had used in the past, and at another point down the road, I sort of just made a decision to really focus on creating sounds either from new field recordings/my voice or by processing the percussion sounds that I was using. So, those decisions really led to what I ended up with. As I finalized pieces and figured out where I was going with things, the more obvious drums largely fell away into the background and what I guess are their “shadows” kinda remained. But everything on the record was driven by sequenced rhythms (outside of some of the overlaying ambient sound).

What attracted you to making electronic music on your own, after many years playing bass in bands, most notably Black Eyes and Mi Ami? And what about the sounds you create as Earthen Sea keeps you coming back to create new material under this moniker?

Well, I’ve actually made electronic music/ambient music for a long time, going back to high school in the 90s when I first got a 4-track cassette recorder. And I’ve made it off and on in various forms over the years since then. I’ve never really felt any sort of disconnect between playing all sorts of music. I mean, I never just listen to one kind of music all the time… and it’s all just music. Just different things to express and explore. As for the name, it’s been going for a while in a number of different phases for sure, but it still feels like a relevant alias for what I do, and it doesn’t really make sense to me to change it. It’s all just music I make that is all connected to each other, if only because of that.

Had you released any of those electronic/ambient sounds prior to Earthen Sea’s debut? At what point did you decide that the project that eventually became Earthen Sea was no longer just for yourself or your circle of friends, and something you wanted to put out into the world?

I didn’t officially put anything out previously. I made a handful of copies of a tape of a bunch of ambient guitar stuff I did at some point in college, but mostly because a friend of mine really wanted a copy of it, but I never did anything else with that. I mean, pretty quickly from the start of making music as Earthen Sea, I was playing shows and making recordings/releases. The most active I was with it until relatively recently was probably the first year I was performing as E.S. I’ve never intended it to not be out in the world, but if it just flies under the radar a bit — that’s kind of how it is, I guess.

You put out early Earthen Sea material on Daniel’s (Ital/Relaxer) Lover’s Rock label, but the two full-lengths have come out on Kranky. How did you get connected with them to release the two albums? Are there any favorite Kranky releases that got you stoked to be working with them?

At some point a few years back, Kranky asked me to send over some music/what I’d be working on, and it kind of just went from there. But yeah, I feel extremely honored to be putting music out on the label. There are a lot of records they have put out that mean a lot to me, but specifically two live experiences from bands on the label had a big impact on me: number one was seeing Labradford the first winter I lived in DC in 95. It was perfect music for a cold December night; number two was seeing Growing live the last summer I lived in DC. Now that I think of it, they were the perfect music for a hot, heavily humid July evening. Beyond those, I really love all of the music that Grouper makes as well, and yeah, there is lots and lots more, obviously.

With Earthen Sea well-established with two full-lengths and a handful of EPs, has your songwriting and production dynamic changed in a surprising way compared to when you were just starting to produce solo material? How have you evolved as a musician now that you primarily compose music on your own?

I would say in terms of songwriting on an overall level, I’ve been pretty consistent over time. What that means in terms of specific approaches at a more microlevel has shifted dramatically, but when it comes to recording what will end up as a song, I like to have some setup that I can press record, do a take live, and when I’m done, the song is done. If I’m happy with it, I keep it; if not, I do it over. What has changed is that in the past that meant just plugging a couple keyboards into pedals and playing live and seeing where it went. Now I spend a long time building out a backbone for what is happening, doing “sound design” work, fx chains, etc., and then when I come to record, I’m more doing a live mix of what I have built. But I don’t think I could make music without some sort of looseness and spontaneity in the process.

Evolving is something that is hard to really place a finger on and know exactly what has happened when, but I would just say that I constantly am trying to learn new things, whether it’s a technical challenge in terms of production that I never spent time with before or learning to play drums (which I’m currently attempting to do). Music-making in all forms is something that is just endlessly fascinating to me.

Photo: Debbie Tuch

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that you and your former Mi Ami bandmates (Damon/Magic Touch and Daniel/Ital/Relaxer) all ventured into electronic and ambient music after the band dissolved. What artists, labels, or live events inspired you to begin making your own electronic tracks? Did you all have this shared interest while playing together?

I think we all kind of came to and ended up where we are sort of separately in some ways, but the interest in lots of different music definitely was something that was shared between the three of us. I know that Damon and Daniel were starting to make tracks while all three of us were in the band, and they were going back and forth with that. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of that at the time.

For me, I would say the biggest inspiration for making electronic music initially was hearing Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II in high school, then after that hearing drum & bass a little bit after that and it just being such an alien-sounding music to me and being really curious about how that is made at all (I still can only kinda wrap my head around that). After that, I would say hearing Basic Channel and [imprint] Rhythm & Sound, and Gas at some point later was big, then kinda early dubstep stuff in 2005/2006 (Shackleton, Burial, etc.) was big for a bit. I would say those were the big moments of inspiration/revitalization of my interest at different points.

You’ve been active in music scenes in D.C., San Francisco, and currently New York. In my experience, it’s common to see life events (jobs, family, change in priorities) affect communities and cause some to move on, especially in large, expensive cities, while others become “lifers” and consistently maintain a presence wherever they’re at. What motivates you to continue making music and playing live shows?

It’s just what I do. I don’t know if I have a choice. Making music is something I’ve done in one form or another for 35+ years. I can’t imagine not doing it in some capacity.

With a less beat-driven sound, Grass and Trees may not sound like a “live record,” but have you or are there plans to take this record to live settings? How would you adapt the album’s subtle, headphone-friendly textures to a larger setting?

Yeah, I’ve actually been playing this stuff (or newer stuff with a similar setup) live for some time now. Because of some of the software setup, it took a while to figure out a live setup that I was happy with, but I’ve developed one that really allows me to be fluid with how I put together a set and flow different songs/pieces into a whole set. I’ve played a couple of sets since I figured that out that, in my opinion, are some of the best ones I’ve ever played. I’m hoping that continues into the future. One thing that I have found with these songs in a live setting is that the openness in terms of space but also in terms of bringing things in or out really allows me to build and put things together so that they work differently depending on how certain shows feel. I’ve played the same song where I make it almost entirely ambient, with just the faintest hint of percussion or low-end one time and then another time really accentuate that part, if the mood or sound system calls for it or allows it.

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