Raymond Scott Woolson is not your typical rock musician. In fact, he’s not a “rock” musician at all. Instead, he crafts dreamy and dense atmospheric instrumental music. And, true to the fiercely independent nature of his music, Woolson’s 4 full-length releases are all home-made and self-released. With these four beautiful releases to his credit, we felt it was time that we interviewed this visionary musician. He may not be popular, but Woolson has sincerely and quietly contributed an impressive and unique body of work in his music, and has many interesting thoughts to offer about music and recording.
Give us an idea of who you are…and how did you get your start in music?
My late father was a guitarist, so I grew up with guitars in the house. I remember picking one up when I was about 4, but I didn’t learn to play the thing until I was 12. I took a year of lessons from Mrs Babcock, who taught me the basics of acoustic guitar. Then I took a year of lessons from Tom, who introduced me to the infinite joys of electric guitar and rock ‘n roll. After that I taught myself. I can’t read music and I don’t know what notes I’m playing. I don’t even know what the strings in the middle are called. At best I’m an average guitar player, but I’m pretty confidant within my limits.
Right from the beginning I wanted to play in a band and I wanted to play my own music. I started writing songs as soon as I could string two notes together. Some of my best songs are nothing but two notes strung together. I’ve never had any interest in playing cover tunes. Why should I play somebody else’s songs when mine are just as good as theirs?
But having said that, I did play in a band once and we did cover tunes. We were a sloppy psychedelic garage band. We knew 8 songs, 4 of my own and 4 covers: Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”, Suicidal Tendencies’ “Subliminal”, and Motorhead’s “We Are The Road Crew”. If anything we were eclectic. But the bassist wanted to just play hard rock hits of the day, and the drummer was more interested in smoking pot than in playing the drums, so we went our separate ways. The bassist did eventually have some local success in a group that played hard rock hits of the day. I have no idea what became of the drummer. I expect he’s doing well somewhere, wreathed in strange smelling smoke. No plans for a reunion.
But that was a long time ago, and all my efforts over the years to put together a decent band were unsuccessful. Eventually I surrendered my visions of rock stardom and devoted myself to being an obscure recording artist. My first release was a primitive cassette of harsh industrial noise. No melody, no rhythm, just brutal unlistenable guitar abuse. It was fun.
That was a long time ago, too. Since then I’ve done at least a dozen cassettes, a couple of 7-inch records, a handful of CD-Rs, and two proper CDs. All self-released and entirely profit-free. I’m not sure what I’d do if I ever made any money at this. Pay more taxes probably.
In the early days I jumped around a lot stylistically from weird experimental noise-scapes, to short and snappy folk/pop songs, to loud guitar rock epics, and finally into my current (and hopefully long-lasting) ethereal instrumental phase. All this leaping about certainly contributed to my consistent failure to build up any kind of audience.
So this was how I got my start in music. I figure my end in music will be something like, “He did his best, even if he never knew what the strings in the middle were called.”
Describe for us the songwriting and recording process for a typical Raymond Scott Woolson song.
A song sometimes begins with a little scrap of melody going around in my head. When I pick up a guitar and try to play it, I nearly always discover that I can’t. But in my efforts I sometimes come up with a new melody that’s just as good even if not quite the same as the original. It’s the battle of the melodies, and the one that I can actually play is the one that wins.
A great many of my songs begin with me recording a simple circular chord progression, something interesting going around and around. I usually put down a basic rhythm track, just one guitar and a simple drum pattern. Then I start building up layers of guitars on top of that, improvising and experimenting with this and that until I find a few melodies or repetitions that mesh well together. I like repetitions. My music is full of layered and interlaced repetitions. To fill in the spaces where vocals would usually go and to give the song a sense of progression, I’ll often start out at a fairly low level and build up to a crescendo, then drop back down and build up again.
Once I figure out what works, then I go back and redo the rhythm tracks, revising them as needed to fit in with the layered stuff on top. Or I just start over again from scratch and re-record the whole song, keeping my fingers crossed that it will still turn out the way it did the first time. I do a lot of re-recording, but I very rarely make “demos” of anything. Every recording is either a finished work or a finished work that didn’t work.
Mixing a song is always a tedious affair. Because of the environment I live in I can’t crank up my monitors very loud, or play music late at night, so I do a lot of recording and mixing through headphones. I’ll mix a song in the headphones, then burn a cd of it and listen to it in a variety of places; on my computer, on a cheap boombox, in my car, etc. I’ll take notes of what sounds ok and what doesn’t, and then go back to the mixer for another try. I easily burn through a dozen cds before I get a final mix I’m happy with. And even then there’s no guarantee I won’t change my mind a week later.
I should mention that I don’t have a proper studio set-up. I’ve lived in a variety of small, shabby apartments over the years, and put my music gear wherever I could find room for it, usually right in the middle of the floor. My recorders sit on a very low coffee table, with a couple of effects units, a cd recorder, cassette deck, and dat recorder crowded together on a small bookshelf next to it. I record my guitars either crouching on the floor, hunched over in a kitchen chair, or standing nearby and squinting down at the level meters far below. All of my mixing is done sitting on the floor, with my studio monitors stacked up on boxes to get them at ear level. I’ve worked this way for many years and I’m used to it, but I’ve never been very comfortable about it. It feels like I’ve spent most of my life stepping over and around guitars and effect pedals, huge tangles of cables, scattered cds and tapes. And, as time marches on, it seems to take me longer to straighten up again after a few hours of crouching over the old tape recorders. Not quite the boy I used to be, I suppose.
Understandably, it can be very difficult for me to get a good sound. I don’t have any professional equipment, and I’m not very confidant as an engineer or producer. I don’t understand the technical side of audio engineering, and I don’t trust my own ears very much. But I’m getting better at it, and I’ve gotten compliments about my recent albums being very professional sounding. I don’t think I’ve quite reached that level yet, but I no longer feel like I need to apologize for the production quality of my albums. A less than polished sound never bothered me very much anyway. I’ve been immersed in the Do-It-Yourself home recording culture for a long time, and a good song is still a good song, no matter if it was recorded at Abbey Road or in my living room.
How did you come to create the kind of music that you record?
I call my music “ethereal” for lack of a better term. It floats a bit uneasily along the outer edges of the shoegaze / dreampop universe. Not heavy enough for the hardcore shoegazers, not wispy enough for the Enya-ites. No vocals, no dance rhythms. Mood music for skylarkers and chronic daydreamers.
I was always attracted to the atmospheric sounds that popped up every now and then in the progressive and psychedelic rock music I listened to growing up, and in the New Wave groups that came and went long ago. I wouldn’t admit it in public, but I really liked the delayed guitars and breathy synthesizers of Flock Of Seagulls. In my early days I toyed with this type of spacey floating sound, but kept it tucked away on the very fringes of my noisier psychedelic and experimental enterprises. I felt slightly embarrassed of writing “pretty” songs.
The shoegaze movement of the early 90’s really revealed to me the wonders of highly atmospheric guitar music, of beautiful noise, and my own songwriting took a decidedly celestial turn right about 1992 or so. But I still spent most of the 90’s clanging away at loud rock music. I used to sing and write lyrics as well. But I was never the arrogant “in your face” type, and my music didn’t have that dark edge to it that gets noticed. Eventually I realized that, with a gazillion macho rock bands out there all screaming at the top of their lungs and jumping around, there was no way my non-aggressive voice was ever going to be heard above the tumult. So in 2001 I decided to slow everything down, aim for the heavens, and concentrate solely on swoony guitar instrumentals. There aren’t as many people doing this kind of thing, and us shoegazey artists are a kinder, gentler bunch anyway. I love loud rock-n-roll, but I’m no longer coy about being a composer of pretty songs.
Who are some artists that influence you in your music?
Pink Floyd and Slowdive are the only true influences. The Floyd gave me the love of spacey atmospheric music, of incorporating non-music sounds into my recordings, and of creating an album as a whole listening experience rather than a random collection of unrelated songs. I love concept albums, if they’re done well; and only the Floyd did them truly well. My albums are not concept albums, but I produce them as if they were. I want there to be a definite sense of progression and unity from the beginning to the end, and a sense of completion and satisfaction when it’s all over.
Slowdive opened me up to the possibilities of the electric guitar as beautiful noise-making machine. I discovered very early on that the electric guitar is not just an amplified acoustic guitar. If you plug it into enough gizmos you can turn an electric guitar into an ocean of gorgeous sounds. I never knew a guitar could sound like those breathy synthesizers I was so fond of until I heard Slowdive.
There are plenty of artists that have inspired me with their music, everyone from Rush to The Wedding Present, but only Slowdive and the Floyd seriously influenced my approach to songwriting, recording, and guitar playing.
Have you tried the songs out in a live format?
I’ve never performed any of my ethereal songs. I don’t have the resources (equipment or fellow musicians or money) necessary to pull it off properly. Since there is usually no clear distinction between lead and rhythm instruments in my music, it would be pointless for me to attempt playing solo to pre-recorded tracks. So much of it would have to be on tapes that it might as well ALL be pre-recorded. Not exactly a thrilling concert experience. Maybe someday I’ll be able to put together a live band, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.
Out of all of the tracks you have recorded, what track are you most proud of, and why?
I’ve recorded literally hundreds of songs over the years, and all of them are my friends. Of my more recent ethereal work, “Jubilate Deo” is probably the song that is dearest to my heart. I don’t quite remember how it came to be written. I do know that I recorded the acoustic guitar first, and more or less improvised the sparkling and breathy guitars on top of that. The big drums were actually recorded last.
There is an overwhelming sense of beauty and sorrow and longing and joy to “Jubilate Deo” that stirs me every time I hear it. The quiet section in the middle, when you hear the little girl’s voice, brings forth visions of distant children running and laughing in wide green fields beneath the flaming golden sunsets of long ago. The triumphant second half sounds like trumpets shouting out victory to the skies, the huge sheets of sound at the end like an ocean washing over the world. “Jubilate Deo” makes me homesick and happy.
I’m very fond of music of that nature, music that is hauntingly beautiful. “Nadia’s Theme”, “The Ecstasy Of Gold”, Pachelbel’s “Canon”. Deeply stirring songs. I don’t know yet if I have any real talent for writing such music myself. I have a hard time instilling any great depth of emotion in my songs. But I think I came pretty close with “Jubilate Deo”.
What is being a totally independent artist like yourself like?
Mainly it means I spend a great deal of my time alone. I’m a solo artist in every sense. I don’t have to answer to anybody, but I also don’t get to work with anybody. I’m responsible for everything. I wear all the hats all the time, but I’m not especially happy about it. I would rather be the creative side, the musician who makes the albums, and let somebody else handle the business side of selling those albums. No one has ever shown a glimmer of interest, but I would sign with just about any label under the sun if it would get my music properly released.
What are some of the challenges you face as an independent musician?
The hardest part is getting people to take my music seriously and give it a listen. I’m nobody. I have no support, no connections, no friends, no money. My albums are low-budget homemade deals. Luckily most of the people who do hear my music enjoy it very much. They affirm my belief that I create music worth listening to. But getting them to listen to it in the first place is an exceptionally difficult task.
What are some of the freedoms you enjoy?
The best thing is that I can do whatever I dang well please. I can put out any kind of music I want. I can be as wildly artistic as I choose. I don’t have to argue with anybody about anything. And, when I get frustrated and tired and feel like calling it quits, I can just leave the guitars leaning against a wall and spend the entire weekend reading P. G. Wodehouse.
You have been quite open about your faith. How does your faith inform your art?
There can be no separation. No genuine faith can be set aside. What I believe permeates everything I do. My music sounds like it does because of my beliefs. I will not add to the burden of darkness in the world, so my songs are naturally uplifting and hopeful. There is no specific message in my music, but there are clues pointing in a certain direction for those who are interested. And those who aren’t are free to enjoy the music as it is without feeling any pressure.
I am in a somewhat unique and difficult position. I am a born-again Christian, which turns off certain groups of people. But I work in alternative styles of music, which turns off other groups. I’ve drawn fire from both sides; ridiculed by one set and frowned upon by the other. Sometimes I feel like the eternal misfit. But that doesn’t matter. I don’t aim my music at any specific market; I’m not trying to be accepted by any group. Any small talent I may have is God-given, and I feel a responsibility to put it to productive use. I agree with Bach that “the aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit.”
What CD’s are you enjoying right now?
Alas, my finances don’t allow me to indulge my music addiction very often, but I did pick up a couple of CDs recently that I like very much. A 2001 album by Andalusia called Such a Heavenly Eyesore. Mostly instrumental songs with a chiming 12-string guitar as primary voice. And a 2005 album by Autumn Thieves called “Sunshine”. Big shoegaze guitars, clear female vocals, and a bass guitar taking a more prominent role than usual. Good stuff all around.
What’s in the future for Raymond Scott Woolson?
For 2006 I’m going to promote my latest CD Accidental Grace Notes, and try to remix and re-release two previous albums: The View from Boggins Heights and Legendarium. They don’t really need remixing, but I can’t help fiddling with them.
I also want to start writing and recording a new album, which is always a lengthy and laborious process. I have ideas, but nothing actually written yet. I’ve been taking a fairly long break since finishing my last project, but I can’t sit around much longer. There are too many songs still in my head that I want to bring out. I work very slowly; it often takes me an entire year to produce an album. Time is moving on, and years are becoming precious. My guitars are beckoning.
Any other comments?
All the important info about my music and currently available albums can be found at my web site: www.raymondscottwoolson.com