Seth Graham The composer and label owner talks new album “Gasp,” the inception of Orange Milk Records, and growing up in Japan

Photo: Zachary Severt

The music published by Orange Milk, an underground behemoth of experimental music and cassette culture co-founded by Seth Graham and Keith Rankin (a.k.a. Giant Claw), feels like multiple authors contributing their stories to one sprawling space opera. The label has been lauded by a wide spectrum of listeners and critics, and is instantly recognized through a delightful, kaleidoscopic approach to color, sound, and aesthetic identity. Themes and approaches in the collective Orange Milk output seem impossible to define coherently. There are oozing, primordial cultures of bacterial sound, moments of pure, demented bliss; Seth Graham’s own music, especially on his latest album Gasp, refines these abstract elements while rocketing them farther into space. It is intrepid music that deliberately hovers on the edge of order, a space that the composer challenges himself to explore.

We caught up with Seth Graham over the phone to talk about Herbie Hancock, the various MIDI instruments he chose to explore on Gasp, and the experiences in his life that brought the album to bear. The album is available to pre-order here (LP) and here (CD), but you can also listen to the full release below before its March 23 release.

Gasp contains a wide variety of sounds, but it’s very focused too. Some of them appear multiple times, like the woodwind, the voices. Did you have a clear idea of what instruments you wanted to appear, and when?

I definitely had a very specific idea… like that composer Gerard Grisey, he has pieces where he records the cello super close to the mic. You can almost hear the rustling, and it’s high-res. It almost sounds like, I don’t wanna say explosion, but it’s a bigger, weirder experience. With classical, when they record it, you hear that typical Tchaikovsky crap; it almost sounds generic. Grisey changed it and put it in your face, and I love that so much. So what I did with the record is any of the instruments that had a really close mic sample [in the VST], I kind of only used those because I liked how they sounded, and I liked how much you could manipulate it. Like for example in the track “Kimochi,” which just means emotion in Japanese, that track starts off with this voice that says one syllable, and that goes into almost sheer metal grinding, and that’s actually just a shit-ton of manipulation of different acoustic instruments with a certain synth. I love to do that and contrast it with that close-mic’d sound. With the flute, you can hear the wind of the person playing. I was obsessed with that.

It ended up being a lot of flute, clarinet, cello, and that was kind of it. I think I used some trombone — there’s certain things you can do with the VST where you can hear the whole sample play out, and you can hear the clicking, and I would use that too, people clicking the wind instruments. I was thinking I should just hire people and record it my fucking self.

That was something I wanted to ask you about — whether you had plans — or already did — record live instruments and manipulate that?

I actually sort of did that already. A record is supposed to come out; it’s pieces from Gasp and a couple of unreleased pieces that this ensemble in Russia asked me to write for a tribute to Philip Glass that they were doing. They asked me and Sean McCann and Sarah Davachi, and I was really honest, like, I’ve never written a classical piece before, I just write MIDI data and mess with it. I just kind of read up on how to write for an ensemble, looked up the instruments they use, re-wrote it all in MIDI. I basically converted that to notation and sent four pieces to them that are pieces from Gasp, but real people. And they did it! They played it at the Museum of Multimedia and Arts in Moscow, and then they played it in a studio, and they were supposed to send us the stems for us to mix and Sean to put out on his label, Recital… and I don’t know, I’m waiting for it. It should be here.

But to answer your question, I’ve been trying to think of ways for a new record where I hire people and I write out pieces, and they play it-slash-sing it, because I want really weird things to happen that I can’t make software do. I go to school with someone who’s a trained opera singer, and I want to pay her to sing what I have all notated, her to sing in this key, but then go “Bleahghghg.” I would love to hear that happen, a magnificent operatic voice just shit the bed. That would be awesome.

Your use of “real instruments” stands apart from other kind of abstract electronic music, like PC Music, where they’re deliberately trying to sound as synthetic as they can.

I’m really influenced by a lot of the modern computer music, like Halcyon Veil, or Jesse Osborne-Lanthier, or Rabit, or Chino Amobi… I like all that stuff, but I have a weird aversion to reverb. I feel like reverb makes things cloudy, and in the listening experience, it kind of masks nothing. It could be an art in itself, but I really tried to stay away from it but still be influenced by their aesthetic.

That’s interesting you mention that, because Gasp contains lots of open, bare spaces, which really struck me when I heard it.

Yeah, and I interpret that as straight-up vulnerability. Just let myself be vulnerable. Vulnerability is such a strength that I admire in people, people who can just admit things and let it be. There’s not even close to enough of that in our world. Even myself I don’t let myself be vulnerable enough, but I think it’s such a beautiful thing, and if the music is kind of awkward and there’s that space, I think it conveys vulnerability.

It conveys a sense of drama, too.

It does, doesn’t it? I am dramatic, I guess. Ha!

Going back to that idea of fate you mentioned earlier, I’m curious as to what the events were that would construct that fate. Like what events took place in your life to form your influences?

Well, I had a really crazy life. I grew up in Japan; my parents were missionaries. I went there when I was six, my mom got really sick — I don’t know why to this day, my parents are, uh, really weird. I was kind of shoved into a public school at six; my dad was studying Japanese at a language school. The language school was across the street from a tennis court. The city is Karuizawa, in Nagano-ken — it’s kind of considered the Aspen of Japan — is very ritzy and beautiful. And one day I’m at the language school waiting for my dad, and I was just starting to learn Japanese. I was immersed in it because nobody spoke English, and I couldn’t understand anything. And literally, one day I understood everything everyone was saying. It was about seven months in and it was so surreal. I remember thinking “What is my life? This is not normal…” And I knew it, but I didn’t even know how to think of it as a six-, seven-year-old. I’m sitting there, and I’m watching all these people playing tennis, and there are cameras there, but I’m just watching with my face against the fence. Someone comes up to me and says, “That’s the emperor of Japan.” I always remembered that. There was a lot of shit that happened there. I started to be a teenager in Japan, and we moved back when I was 15…

So you spent your formative years there?

Yeah, my formative years were spent in Japan. I started skateboarding in Japan, became a really avid skateboarder, and we even were responsible for finding a really famous skate spot. We came back to the US when I was 15. I was really into Japanese punk-rock; I remember the day Kurt Cobain died — I was really into Nirvana.

The real formative thing was when I came back to the US. My parents were really conservative… like I can’t overstate it enough. So I came back from Japan, skateboarding, and punk rock, to rural Ohio, where everyone played football. My parents didn’t want me to go to school because they thought I would become a corrupt atheist, so I didn’t. I was homeschooled and worked at a movie theater from 15 to 18, and I would pretend to do my homework and finish by 11, and then go work the matinee shift with this old woman named Phyllis. The reason I tell you all this is that the shock of cultural difference put my brain into a spin. Everything became very existential to me at a very young age. I was like, “Nothing means anything.” I realized in 6th grade that the Japanese didn’t like America — I went to Hiroshima on a field trip and they were all like, fuck America — but all my life I had heard about how great America was, so you start to see the dissonance at a young age. Which is true? So when I was really young I started to throw it all out the window, like all of it was a joke to me, but not as a rebellious teenager, it was a true existential crisis to me. I started to notice the deep contrast in everything, and I started to notice all the little things instead of the big things. That changed how I perceived everything, I think. And I think that’s what helps me be creative, if I am even creative. That was the most colossal thing, that upbringing and those events.

You and [ex-TMT contributor] Keith Rankin knew each other in Ohio when you both started Orange Milk around 2010. Could you explain the environment you were in and your ideas of what the label was going to be like?

People want like a glorious answer when they ask that, but there isn’t one. It was honestly Keith and I were making music ourselves, and we both kept getting rejected by labels… Probably for good reasons. We were like, “Aw, fuck that, let’s start our own label to release our own stuff.” It was kind of a hybrid between there being certain artists who were only on tape who we thought should come out on LP. One of them was an album called Crowded Out Memory by this band called Caboladies. That was kind of the Robert Beatty crew, like Eric Lanham and Christopher Bush; they had this band that were kind of spastic, fun electronica. We loved it, and that album in particular came on a really limited CD-R, and we were like, “That should be on LP!” It was like when all that rage with Emeralds was happening in our little pocket scene. And not that it was a competition, but we thought Caboladies was far more interesting, and we wanted to bolster it for that reason. We were just like… I don’t want to hear synth drone.

We would send each other clips by a really wide variety of artists. We were imaging things we wanted to hear together, in some weird way. Like the Herbie Hancock Raindance record. All kinds of little clips, like, “This album, but only these parts.” We did have a very conscious conversation to decide where we wanted to go, and then we just started digging it up. We just started searching for things that we liked on SoundCloud.

Would you consider that your contribution to music or to your pocket of the music world? Is establishing that family your driving force?

I think Keith and I really wanted to be in the music world, and we kind of constantly got rejected a lot. We wanted to find our own. And we were, I wouldn’t say critical, but we were really into this idea of experimental music being really joyous and really accessible. Like folk music or something. And we really consciously saw it that way. We would sit down and listen to Herbie Hancock — I think I’ve mentioned him a few times, but we’re obsessed — and we would listen to his records and say, “This part is pure joy, but it sounds insane.” We want to make that, and we want to hear that, and have a label go full-tilt on making that. It’s one of my favorite things about Hancock. His music is chill and inviting and so weird at times. I just love that. It feels like you can let go — it can be contemplative, it can be deep, it can be all that Tiny Mix Tapes stuff, or it can just be pure fun! I think we both find it really refreshing. And we like releasing our own stuff because it just gives us control and makes it less bureaucratic or political. It’s less about hustling. I don’t have to worry about being judged. That freedom is nice as an artist.

You’ve mentioned joy a few times as an important theme in your music…

I feel joy a lot, so I was just trying to convey that as much as I could.

What about the process of making music? Does that bring joy? Your music sounds very playful, so I’m wondering to what degree your process involves discovery or “play,” in the kind of childlike way of working things out?

Ha! Making the music is torture. I feel like Keith and I have high standards with each other. If I make a track and send it to him, he’s going to kind of rip it apart. It’s kind of like a professor reviewing your work. We both treat it as a helpful device, we’re not trying to shit on each other, we both really love each other so there’s that trust. It’s a rare thing. But in that sense, my record felt like a master’s thesis. It was so much work, and so much time, and agony. But I still love doing it.

To answer your question, I was trying to be super-direct — this is how I feel, a lot of the time. It’s kind of funny, joyous, kind of awkward at times. I wanted those elements to be in there, and I have this kind of aversion to authority. I associate it with pretension. I’m not saying it’s objective, but pretension and authority to me are the same thing. It’s about controlling you, or controlling how you will experience something. And if you let that go, you can make with it what you will, know what I mean? That might sound like pretentious nonsense, I don’t know.

Was the record heavily composed our conceptually wrought before you began to work on it?

It was a mixture of everything. After talking to people who are actually trained classically, I get the vibe that everybody has a similar method. Some things are conceptually thought out, like I want this sound or that sound, and then you build a structure to execute that sound. I would write MIDI parts that were like, a cello pizzicato, and I would write it until I really liked it, and then let it sit. And I would play with Serum [VST], and be like, I like this sound that sounds like metal is coming out of my eyeball, how can I fixate on this thing?

It’s almost like assembling a painting — I like this shape, this color, and then you just edit it and fit it in. OK, now I’m going to add clarinet, like right here. You mess with that sequence forever. That’s what I did, but with Gasp, I tried to take it as far as I could. In that once I had a structure I really liked, I would hate the song. Even though I liked all the parts, I would then edit it down — like how fucked up could I make this? — until it feels barely cohesive.

So did this process yield tons of material? How did you decide what would make the final cut?

At one point when I was making it, I got so tired that I just wanted to put it up on Bandcamp and never think about it again. I basically revised like 70% of it, and that was like a year in. But I just knew it wasn’t done. So you just keep going with the record. There were moments when I was just completely improvising. I would take Push 2 [the Ableton Live controller/sequencer], just randomly play it, hit things, turn things. I don’t come up with much that way, but every once in a while when I get really frustrated, I’ll just improvise and see what happens. It usually yields like three hours of dicking around. But I always end up in what seems like a final crescendo, where I think back through so many times, you have to do, over and over, tedious. Sometimes you have to delete everything, and you go over it again and half of it is good. And once you’re 80% done, you can’t stand the other 20%, but you’re so sick and tired of it, it’s torture. That’s what it felt like. But I love it, and now I’m all ready to do another one. It’s kind of all I can think about.

Most Read