Well, here it is, folks…the interview we’ve waited years to have. And is it ever worth the wait. Scott Cortez is perhaps the most prolific artist in the shoegaze/dreampop scene, and has his hand in a dizzying array of projects who have released a number of critically acclaimed CD’s. While Cortez is obviously a gifted man with a unique take on music, he has also worked in relative obscurity, able to catch the attention of only a small but highly loyal fan base. Those lucky enough to have heard Cortez in his various musical incarnations know, though, that the man is simply a musical genius. The below review, complete with no capitalization and long, excellent answers that challenge the reader to think about noisepop in a new way, is exactly how one would expect Scott Cortez to answer questions in an interview, based on his amazing music. Read, learn, breathe and enjoy, the Scott Cortez interview:
How did you get involved in music, and specifically, how did you first realize that you wanted to make shoegaze/dreampop type music?
Back in 86 I was getting into making atmospheric music with my Korg poly synth. I would borrow 4 tracks from various friends to make music, so I had to record all of my music as fast as possible. It was very difficult to develop but it sure taught me how to record fast. I was always borrowing delay pedals from guitarists and doing volume swells and textures too. I was really into the delay pedal and the looping abilities of those early boss pedals. I was also a bass player and got pretty good, but I was running into a wall with that. I got bored and switched to guitar.
There was a pivotal moment back in 87 that started me on the guitar path. I had a friend that was in some band and he had this big delicate washy backwards guitar sound. I asked him how he got that effect and he said it was the rackmount midiverb 2, that was a revelation. It was the tonality that I was after but had not been able to get. He is the reason I abandoned keyboards to get the ambient sound. I saw that I get strange organic tones with just a little coaxing of the guitar. I sold my synth and bought a horrible peavey trainer guitar. I borrowed a 4 track and my friends midiverb and started making some guitarwashy walls of sound, that was in 88. I never went back to synths, too precise, not dirty enough.
Who would you say are influences for you musically and/or lyrically?
Sound, everything that i hear influences me in some way. I either want to incorporate it or reject it. I loved Eno as a kid, all his periods. I bought a Jesus and Mary Chain cassette and was blown away. The Durutti Column. the Cocteau Twins. 4AD. Movie soundtracks.
Influences are like different sensei, different teachers that take me to new levels of kung fu. All the influences are there to help me find my voice, that thing that I do. my own kung fu style, like drunken space monkey or something.
I would play with Kirk Marrison and T.J. Martin back in 91. We would sit around and just make long ambient works for hours late at night. Kirk is Waterwheel now and plays in Fibreforms or KILN and TJ does Stone Man Hiss. I had another friend who introduced me to the Cocteau Twins back in 85. 4AD was still in a golden age, Lush hadn’t even come out yet. I collected as much 4AD stuff as i could. the music seemed to touch a certain quality that was sublime at the time. I went to Germany to visit a girl and spent 2 weeks making tapes of her record collection. Dead can Dance, Swans, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Front 242, Laibach, Kraftwerk, In the Nursery, Lustmord, SPK, Throbbing Gristle, New Order, Siouxie, Echo, Joy Division, Hafler Trio, Wire, Skinny Puppy.
Kitaro, Eno, Jean Michel Jarre, Phillip Glass, Daniel Lentz, Steve Reich. Kelly Hirai.
Gary Numan, Japan, Kraftwerk, David Sylvian, Eno, Shreikback, Simple Minds, John Foxx, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel,
I guess as long as i can remember I’ve always heard music in my head. I think I appreciate dreampop or shoegaze because the bands that fit that label have affinities for certain sonic phenomenon that i do.
I just liked interesting and unique sonorities that originated on a guitar. Back in the 80s when I was a teen, I was listening to a lot of new wave. the guitar stylings of Frippertronics, Adrian Belew, Durutti Column, Japan, Sonic Youth, The Cure, Glenn Branca, Jesus and Mary Chain and finally the Cocteau Twins, all left an impression that made me focus on the deconstruction of guitar-ness. all of these bands were interested in making songs as well as expand the guitar vocabulary.
I found a book by john cage while I was working in a library and he opened up new possibilities of music I am still working on his kung fu. I would have to say he is still the most influential.
I am first and foremost a visual artist. I started drawing at an early age and was enrolled in all sorts of art programs as a kid. my family was very musical so I heard all styles growing up, classical, jazz, rock, motown, tex-mex, tejano. my grandfather played an old country Mexican Texas style of playing on the acoustic. i was about 3, when he wasn’t around I would mess with it, I could only pluck it. I wouldn’t try to play guitar again until high school. my aunt had an organ that I would drone on when I was alone, it was lovely. Film music was very important, it was just absorbed into me. I tried the violin in 5th grade and didn’t practice so I gave it up. the next year someone gave me a sears electric guitar, that never stayed in tune. I used it to play air guitar while listening to the police. I picked up the bass, taught myself and started playing in a cover band in the 9th grade. In high school I was introduced to Eno and his ambient music albums, those impressed a whole new aesthetic on me. i would play in the orchestra rooms after school and make recordings on a boom box of myself plinking around on a piano or vibraphone. I would take a microcassette recorder and just record various things around town.
Most music is about a song; others concentrate on the texture of the song. Anyone that looks at music as sound first and foremost is an influence on me. I do like songs though, a person singing by themselves is lovely to me. discovering harmonics was a huge influence.
movie soundtracks had the biggest influence upon me, they follow their own set of rules that is dictated by the need of the moment. they don’t necessarily use a set formula, so film music can be all over the place. i liked that idea.
John Cage. His thoughts on music were indispensable, he gave me a sense of seeing everything as music. Eno. drones, strange sounds that occur in the environment. Fripp, Belew, Branca, Ligeti, Kevin Shields, Guthrie. Budd, Jon Hassel, Reich, Riley. The biggest influence was probably the delay looping pedals in the early 80’s and the midiverb 2. These tools are indispensable to creating the songs and the sound that I love.
I would always see the My Blood Valentine albums in the store back in 89, but I never got a chance to listen to them. I finally heard My Bloody Valentine in 90 when my friend Kirk Marrison gave me a mix tape with ‘No More Sorry’ and ‘Lose My Breath’ on it. I liked it but lost the tape and forgot about the band until Loveless came out and all my friends were talking about it. Melissa and I went to see them play in Detroit before we had listened to Loveless, the hype was enough. We were both blown away by the sheer intensity of that show, still the loudest thing I have ever been witness to. The next day we bought Loveless on cassette and it became our soundtrack for the car that summer in 92.
The sound of spaces themselves, the way things sound in one room as opposed to another. man-made, chain link fences, telegraph wires when they whine in the air, streetlamp hum, power transformers, am radio static, the way stations and songs crossover one another, trains in the distant clacking, a piano with the sustain pedal. natural, birdsong, insect drone, a seashells whoosh against your ear, water flowing through pipes, the soft hush of snowfall…
For the uninitiated, please describe your various musical projects (especially Astrobrite and Lovesliescrushing).
The ONLY thing that anyone should know regarding all of my projects is that I DO NOT use keyboards or synths to generate any of the sounds. I extract all of my tones from the guitar and voice. I will probably take it further and just use acoustic instruments and field recordings and give up processing altogether, but I am not there yet.
lovesliescrushing is Melissa Arpin on voice and myself playing guitar and sometimes singing. The musical elements are minimal yet the resultant music very maximal and spacious.
Melissa Sings words in English and also her own sound vocabulary in the style of Liz Frazier of Cocteau Twins. Sigur Ros does this as well too.
This is done to a maximum effect on the new album which is mostly Melissa’s voice singing words and sounds. Then I splice these words and sounds into fragments that become the basis of a rhythmic vocal vocabulary. Then I process these sonic bits until it becomes the musical foundation that she sings over. An ambient wall of voice, the characteristics are smeared yet organically recognizable. it is a sort of self-referential music that is mirroring itself, folding back on itself. I can’t wait for the reviews to start talking about ‘keyboards’ this and ‘samplers’ that. This music was hard as hell to do because it sounds like I used sequencers and synths. It is more fun to do this stuff by hand; anyone can hold down a pad sound on a synth. The human voice has more harmonic information anyways, and that is what I am all about.
ASTROBRITE is just noise pop. I sing and play bass and guitar over drum machine. It is like good chocolate; the songs are just fun for me to play but I don’t expect to live on a diet that consists of chocolate. However, you do need a little chocolate every day to be healthy, something about the flavanoids or something and it has to have a high cocoa content. It is an outlet for my poppier side. The singing is very automatic except for a few songs. For the Japanese release of the new Astrobrite album they wanted lyrics for the songs. The lyrics didn’t exist so I had to make them up by listening to the songs and translating the word sounds into real words that aren’t really there. I sing several tracks and different things, so the sum creates a suggestive word.
POLYKROMA is looped ambient guitar over old school beats or electronica beats started in 96. I will get to releasing this stuff soon.
PANAURAMIC, is textural long drone ambient guitar works, the first piece VEILS, was recorded in 90 followed by GLITHERINE back in 94.
TRANSIENT STELLAR is shoegaze meets jungle, break beats started in 97. I think I will finally get this out with Chris Jeely’s help.
Out of all your releases, which one are you most proud of? Why?
I like them all for various reasons, well, I like different aspects of each. I think I would have to say BLOWEYELASHWISH because it started it all for us. It is a primer for nearly all of our sonic experiments all rolled into one album, a prelude of things to come. It has noisepop, dreamy, ambient noise, acapella, drones, feedback galore, static burst madness, guitar washes, it is all over the place. It pushed things and established our signature sound of deconstructing and mutating the guitar till it barely resembled a guitar.
I like the newest one that will come out this summer, called CHORUS. It is pretty special to me and very difficult to make because of the rule I set before us, sans guitar. There are no guitars on CHORUS, it is acapella and that really makes things hard. I concentrated my efforts on making songs using only our voices, focusing on what makes us LLC, so that our voice comes through. I was afraid that it wouldn’t work there for a while, that I had bit off a bit more than I could handle. I felt I had made a mistake putting such a large limitation before us and spent many a night cursing this album.
I am proud of it because it exceeded my expectation by sounding the most like us and yet strangely alien at the same time. it is definitely going to be the one that people will remember us for. shoegaze acapella, actually more like ambient acapella or blis-spella. i think it might be a new direction for us to explore, i can’t think of that many bands doing it. we hinted at it on GLISSCEULE back in 2001, which featured two acapella tracks.
I like GLITHERINE as well, it is a track I did back in 94 that most of my friends loved. Andrew Prinz of Mahogany really liked it, appealed to his classical side. It is about 30 minutes long, has a few movements, and involves about 30 guitar layers. Imagine listening to a million bees trying to emulate an orchestra tuning while you stand under a jet engine, it is a big shimmering slab of drone. GLISSCEULE, maintains an aesthetic throughout and it also puts distance between us and most of the comparisons that are leveled against us. I like the minimal artwork putting more emphasis on the sounds within, moving into new territory while further developing our style.
You create some lovely walls of sound, yet most often use lo-fi recording techniques to capture your music…can you describe for us the basic approach you take to recording music?
I hum tunes to myself as I am walking home, then record when I get to my bedroom studio.
First I hear something in my head and then I try to find it on the guitar and translate the melody. It can also start with a looped phrase some chords on the guitar that I like and try to structure. Then I get to recording it and finding a good tone. This is when the treatments and effects come into play. after the sounds are right and I have the song down, I record it. Then I go back and destroy it, retape over various parts and piece it back into a new whole. It resembles painting. First you have a good sketch that you thing is the song, then you have to put color on top and then scrape away the paint and put another dense layer. I never really know how a song will turn out because they barely resemble the first draft. . I didn’t think that we would be imitated but CASINO VS. JAPAN mentioned FENNESZ to me. I saw CASION VS. JAPAN do a dj set and he slid this FENNESZ track in before a LLC track just to show me. I was surprised at how similar it was. I thought that it was a sample of one of our songs. I think it was probably coincidental, I don’t think FENNESZ has even heard of me. I believe we sound alike because we aspire for similar ends, to make the guitar sound like anything but a guitar, yet with different means.
Sometimes I am inspired by concepts and art, or even reviews of music. When I see a review for a band and the writer describes their sound, I try to interpret that description with music. Words are a poor device when trying to sum up music, but can be a good starting point in the creative process. I would read something describing a sound and then I would try to make that sound. When I finally heard the band, my interpretation usually sounded more on the money.
Tell us about STAR? Who does it involve, and how did it come together?
STAR is Shannon Roberts on vocals, Theodore Beck handling the tech aspect. I come up with the music from beats that ted makes, I lay down the wall of guitar and bass, then hand that mix to Shannon. She sings on it and Ted mixes it down. I had some tracks that I was getting nowhere with and I did not like my vocals on them. Instead of throwing them away, I gave them to Shannon just for fun and she brought them to life. Before I knew what was happening we became a band. It was like going on a blind date and then waking up the next morning realizing you got married in Vegas…to Natalie Portman or Alicia Warrington.
What are some CD’s that Scott Cortez is listening to these days?
My friends band PAIK. I am working on directing a feature film and PAIK will do the soundtrack, so I have been trying to find various tracks of theirs that fit in the context of the story. Eyelight.
You have become a greatly respected artist in the “underground” music scene…how does it feel to be elevated to this kind of status?
I didn’t know that I was famous or had some sort of status. I still feel like no one knows who I am. I am still broke so I don’t feel the elevation of doing what you love and living off it. Well the status would mean that people are listening and that would be all that matters.
It feels good if it is true, making something that means something to someone other than myself. I walk around listening to new stuff am test driving it that way, if I like it then I release it.
There was a moment back in 97 at the Projekt Fest in Chicago. we were doing a lovesliescrushing show and showcasing the transient stellar sound, which was guitar wash over drum and bass beats. Before the show I saw this girl having trouble at the door, they wouldn’t let her in because she was too young. I went outside and talked to her for a moment and found out that she was a fan of lovesliescrushing and that she was from Boston or something. I felt bad that she had come all that way to see us play and couldn’t get in. That made me feel as though I had some sort of status, that someone was willing to travel across states to see me. If anyone knows who this girl is, have her email me or something and I can get her a one and only tape of that show and some other stuff. I have a box of music that I am working on for another fan and they don’t know about it so it will be a summer surprise.
I wouldn’t mind people picking out the red m & m’s for me, or making out, but that is not going to happen…that m & m thing.
Does it affect the way you approach your various musical endeavours?
At least I can email people and ask them if they want to collaborate on something and they get excited about it. So my fame amounts to causing excitement in the people who have heard of me, which is cool. Since music is not a lucrative affair for me the only thing I would value is the respect of my peers. If fans have nice things to say, it means a great deal to hear that my music has touched them in some way. this mysterious thing that I have been a medium for. If they have negative things to say, it only matters if it is true. If it is bullshit, I don’t care.
There are people that I regard highly. Andrew Prinz, Rob Smith, Kirk Marrison, Adam and Cat Cooper, Roland Daum. Jehn Cerron. Tons of people. There are things I like about myself musically, and then there are places I wish I had discovered that these people have shown me. in the end i guess it doesn’t matter who discovers what first, i just want people to hum my songs years from now, if they are good enough.
Explain to us the concept behind Wavertone.
The name refers to the wave nature of light and sound, of energy, the essence of music and structure of matter. Shit, I sound fucking new-agey. I just thought the name sounded cool and scientific, old school, like I am conducting sonic experiments and pioneering research and development. I wanted to sound like a stereo company. It is just a platform for me to release the beta versions of my music before it gets sent out to labels. Eventually I will start getting into releasing others music but for now it is limited to myself. In the next year I will be moving into that arena. For now, I am still honing the wavertone aesthetic, which will concentrate on experimental music with an emphasis on guitar that dabbles in pop from time to time.
Someone also used the word ‘wavertone’ to describe our music and voila, that became the label name.
If you had the chance to tell the young guitarists, 4-track recording garage bands and upstart musicians worldwide one thing what advice would you offer?
Listen and become aware of sound in “non-musical” situations. Make your limitations become opportunities for creative solutions. On recording, if you want a lot of tape hiss, keep the levels low, if you want less hiss, boost the levels. Do what the song requires, does it need this or that or are you just putting it in because it’s the expected formula. Enjoy finding your original voice. Don’t limit yourself, push it. Make yourself uncomfortable from time to time and always take chances.
What is in the future for Scott Cortez?
Pushing and expanding my musical vocabulary. Work on more collaborations. Build some instruments and guitars. make some musical installations that I can put in the desert that play themselves. Tour the country. Release more projects. Try to gain some visibility and not flounder in obscurity, get some mileage out of this ‘famous’ thing.