An Interview with Ambient and Experimental Artist Steve Giacomelli
Steve Giacomelli is an experimental musician hailing from Silicon Valley, California. In the past year, he has released two albums, one being Opus I-IV and the wonderful Loose Canons 2.0, a sort of exploration in 8bit gaming soundtrack composition. Steve was kind enough to answer my questions about both of his most recent albums, his larger musical involvement in various projects, and his love of the synthesizer and its possibilities. If you don’t know Steve‘s work, I highly recommend you check out his various projects!
Hello Steve. Thanks for doing this. Can you talk a bit about how you got your start in making music and why you are attracted to ambient and electronic modes of music?
Sure, thanks for having me. I started making music with my friend James Barreto, we had an experimental psych band called The Ohm back in 1999, but before that we were making weird sound collages of dreamy melodic/ominous noise pieces with two guitars, a cheap keyboard, and two tape recorders, producing these atmospheric epics by overdubbing in the most primitive way imaginable. It was great stuff! At the time I think we both considered Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” as the pinnacle of musical achievement. Eventually, we both moved to Gainesville, FL where we started jamming in The Ohm with our friends Zach Veltheim and Mark Miller. They were old friends themselves, so everything was instantly simpatico and we developed a mode of instant composition. We were into spacey, groovy sounds of the Pink Floyd or Can variety but also guitar attacks like early Mercury Rev, My Bloody Valentine, and Sonic Youth. I played a lot of guitar but I was also a keyboard guy too. Anyway, I just started to play more keyboards. Zach got a Micromoog and we started to use that. I was kinda obsessed with it and used in whenever I could, in solo home recordings as well as other bands I was playing in.
I like playing and listening to all different types of music but I’m drawn to ambient and electronic music because to me it’s a chance for your brain to relax and contemplate things on a different scale. The best ambient record can put you in a whole other place, do a real mind-meld where it’s just your brain & the music and everything else washes away. I like the way emotion can be sublimated and limited to melody and timbre and not sort of overshadowed by a human personality and verbal expression. Sometimes you’re just looking for something soothing to listen to that you can inhabit like a multi-dimensional space.
Since I’ve already reviewed Opus on the site, I thought I would ask a few questions about Loose Canons 2.0 first. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for Loose Canons 2.0 and the sort of approach you used to write and record the tracks on the album?
Sure, this album was all about a combination of melodic and production ideas. I had wanted to play around with the classical canon form for a long time, being transfixed by the clockwork repetition and really intrigued by the all the possibilities of harmonic counterpoints and tempo / accent manipulation through layering and overdubbing. After I moved out to California I got my own Micromoog and around that time I finally got into Terry Riley after only being familiar with The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” for years and years. And being a big fan of Lawrence Ball’s Method Music, which is pretty much a realization of Pete Townshend’s initial “Baba O’Riley”/Lifehouse experiments, I started to get a sense of what was possible if you just kinda expanded on it all. Now I basically live in Silicon Valley, which is like the video game capital of the world, and there’s just a ton of video game stuff going around here. I started to remember all the old Nintendo scores and knew that if Koji Kondo and Hip Tanaka accomplished all that with only like 3 voices, then I could do something similar working within the perceived limitations of the Micromoog. Some of the key words in my mind at the time were “fractal” and “lively”. So I just started to record some ideas, and pretty soon I had some things that worked and those proved as the template for moving forward. Also, I was really inspired by John Carptenter’s ominous minimal soundtrack to Assault on Precinct 13, as well as the first Fripp & Eno album, by the way they used repetition as a pallet to build on.
What sort of equipment/synths did you use in recording Loose Canons 2.0 and how did you choose, construct, or find the kinds of sounds, tones, and textures you wanted for your compositions?
This album was all Micromoog straight to DAW. I knew that I wanted to do something with the limited parameters of a monophonic synth and the Micromoog just fit the bill. I knew my way around it enough that I could make all the retro 8-bit sounds I was envisioning without overcomplicating things. And it’s the only one of those old analog synths that has a ribbon, which to me is essential. Plus it’s got the old-school vibe to get you in the retro kind of mood.
There were a couple phases of construction, because the crazy thing about Loose Canons 2.0 is that it’s basically a remix album of itself. I had 10 or 11 pieces that pretty much accomplished everything that I had set out to do with the interlocking arpeggiating canons, except get that manic, over-the-top dramatic feeling that great video game music sometimes evokes. Some of these pieces played out more like slow electro chorales. Then I thought of the second Neu album where I guess they ran out of material, so Konny Plank or Michael Rother or Klaus Dinger or whoever just decided to have side 2 be slowed down, sped up, or backwards versions of the tracks on side 1. And those all seemed like Oblique Strategies-approved options, so I just sped up some of the tracks, and messed around with them until I was getting the feeling I wanted. If that didn’t work then I reversed them, and that gave me the kinda dramatic electro expression that I was looking for. And the original pieces were all around ten minutes, so then I just cut up the best bits to kinda create “single” versions of those tracks. Then it was just a matter of sequencing to evoke an analog 8-bit mini-epic adventure.
I like to ask about tracks on albums to get a more specific take on how the artist approaches songs and where those particular songs are coming from. Could you talk more about “Castle Walls” and “Attack of the Zoltoids” and what inspired those two tracks? Also, what the recording and writing was like for them?
“Castle Walls” is something that I thought of as the first level of a video game. So I wanted to give an initial easygoing feeling with maybe some thoughts of warding off some pixelated foes. Like most of the tracks, it was constructed ground up from a bass riff and a complimentary motif, which are looped and form the basic “landscape” of the track, on top of which I layered interlocking themes and minimal sound effects blasts, which were all played in real time without a sequencer. “Attack of the Zoltoids” was constructed the same way; it’s like the spooky showdown song where you finally found the big boss and it’s all going down. Zoltoids might be my favorite just in terms of the minimal dramatic atmosphere.
So, you released Loose Canons 2.0 in July 2016 and then Opus I-IV in October. Did the projects overlap in terms of writing and recording? If not, how did you make the transition from these two very different sounding projects?
There was about a month-long gap between the two projects. Loose Canons was recorded in late March/early April and Opus I-IV was early May, so there was plenty of time to reflect and contemplate another direction. Opus I-IV was kinda planned as the opposite response to the clockwork structures of Loose Canons 2.0, just the chance to completely stretch out, but still use the arpeggiating melodic repetition as a compositional tool.
I would like to turn now to Opus I-IV, which I find to be a brilliant ambient work. Can you talk more about the recording process for Opus I-IV and how you composed your four pieces?
Thanks, I’m glad you like it. It came together pretty quick. I wanted to do something really spaced-out and drone-heavy, but still have melodic hooks that would come up and hold your interest for a second before fleeing and becoming something else. And just toying with the idea of micro-compositions against a long-form spaced-out background. Another idea was to create a musical hypersigil, with the root key from each piece chosen from the available matching letters in my last name. I figured if the drone washes and melodic motifs both held to same tonal center then there would be an inherent harmony between the two disparate elements. Little pretty parts against the weird parts. Once I had the template down, I was able to knock the album out in a few days.
How was the recording of Opus I-IV different from Loose Canons 2.0 in terms of the equipment you used and the tones and textures you gathered as your pallet?
It was pretty different, but that was really by design since I like to have a different approach for each new project. I didn’t really want to retread anything that I did on Loose Canons 2.0, so I didn’t use the Moog at all. I used the Microkorg instead, and ran it through various delay, reverb and flanger pedals to make the drones, and then the “chamber accompaniment” was played on a modest little Yamaha keyboard run through the delay unit so I could pretend I was Terry Riley doing these cascading little melodies.
Of the four pieces on the album, I really do like “Opus II”. Can you talk about the inspiration for that piece and how you view it now that you’ve had some distance from recording it?
Sure, that piece was mainly inspired by the key of A. That was the only idea going in but now upon reflection I’m really happy with the mini sci-fi epic that it’s become.
Actually there were two crucial things that happened to inspire Opus II and the rest of the tracks as well. I went to Austin last year to see the Levitation psych fest, but when it got canceled I ended up just making a bunch of music with some friends, which ended up being some pretty long-form and drone-y stuff yet melodic and dynamic. And I started to see the merit of doing something more in that vein. Then a few days later I saw Mercury Rev play a live soundtrack to the German horror classic Vampyr, and it was all droned out improvs with some kinda agreed-upon changes. I’ve got a few recordings of them doing similar things under the name Harmony Rockets with a rotating cast, and this was basically similar to that but along with Simon Raymonde from the Cocteau Twins. It was 5 people on bowed saw, guitars, organ, flute, clarinet, Mellotron, xylophone, and percussion. So this too got me motivated to do something different and try to really get “out there” with the Opus pieces. I liked the idea of these weird backgrounds with classical instruments on top.
Personally, you’ve had a long history playing in bands of various genres. What brought you around to the ambient side of the musical equation? Are there any other genres you would like to return to in terms of writing and recording?
I’ve always kinda had an ambient streak going since early on, in terms of allowing the atmosphere to become part of the recordings. On those old experimental tapes with James Barreto we incorporated live police helicopters, television samples, weather recordings, pizza delivery, you name it. But I didn’t really get back to long-form ambient music until I recorded the album Synthetic Resonance: Ultra-Dimensional Exercises in Deep Space in collaboration with my friend James Lantz early last year. Before that I was doing more song-based synth session work for my friend Jason Hatfield in his west coast studio, Hatfield Digital. But anyway Synthetic Resonance was really minimal ambient, sorta dark electroacoustic stuff, kind of like the early Tangerine Dream records. We immediately recorded a lighter follow-up called The Crystal Fortress along the same lines but with more purposeful melodic themes. I liked being in that world of creating an environment and being able to inhabit it so I focused on doing more of that. I’m still writing a lot of song-based music for ongoing things, I have another project with James Lantz called See Jams which is just our personal take on popular song forms and we can really explore any genre within that. I know I have a great noisepop psych-freak-out LP or two in me but the ambient stuff is a great pallet cleanser in between other projects.
Can you talk a bit about how you think about art generally and also its larger place within society?.
Oh man, I try not to think about art too much and just enjoy things as entertainment. Art’s like a word for someone to call something once you’ve finished it. I like to make stuff to entertain myself and others, and humans have the ability to make stuff that seem to enrich the lives of others, so making entertainment for people to enjoy seems like a beneficial asset to society. In the end I think craft is more important than art. Craft is what gets it done, art is just what you call it afterwards.
What artists, whether they be musical, visual, or literary, are influences or inspirations to you?
In music, everything comes back to Pink Floyd or The Who. That’s where I really was exposed to ambient and electronic music as well as classic songwriting and construction. You look at those early Floyd albums with tracks like “Interstellar Overdrive”, “A Saucerful of Secrets”, “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, the middle part of “Echoes”, “On the Run” the intro to “Shine On” and especially their soundtrack work, they were creating ambient worlds years before Eno’s marquee works. And the Who’s Next album is where I was first fully transfixed by the synthesizer and it’s possibilities, a fascination that has extended to Pete Townshend’s Scoop collections with lots of notable ARP and CS-80 experiments.
When it comes to more recent stuff, I really love what Stereolab was doing with their analog electro sounds. Anyone who uses an old school moog is alright in my book, y’know. Kraftwerk…Brian Wilson on The Beach Boys Love You, Dick Hyman’s Electric Eclectics, Marvin Gaye… And the early Spiritualized albums have some inspiring electro-canon pieces. Frank Zappa, Sun Ra, and Todd Rundgren are all heroes for their melodic strength, dedication, and conceptual commitment. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Harmonia, Suzanne Ciani, Laurie Spiegel, and Ashra/Manuel Gottsching and TONTO recently.
But outside of the above classics, I’m mainly inspired by my friends and their ongoing creative endeavors. There’s Ancient River, which is James Barreto’s current band, their stuff blows me away. Zach played in it too after The Ohm and now he’s releasing little electro-suites, and also there’s The Sleep Tights, just a tight dreamy rock band who used to be called Dirty Poodle back in Gainesville. I was fortunate to live in a college town with tons of places for shows and it seemed like everyone was in a band, so seeing my friends or people I knew in bands like Dirty Poodle, The Cygnet Committee, Polline, Two Finger Suicide, Ithaca and Argentina was hugely inspirational. There was a whole scene of underground bands that were amazing and original… I’ve had fantasies of putting out a Nuggets-style box set, if only people still listened to CDs.
As for new stuff, I’ve been getting into Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Flavor Crystals and of course the Stranger Things soundtrack has some great stuff on it. My buddy Chris Trujillo did the production design on that show so I’m excited to see what everyone has cooked up for the next season. The Ohm actually recorded a live album at his artspace back in the day, I’d like to re-release that sometime. Speaking of the visual realm, I get a lot of inspiration from directors like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick for their ability to create a total immersive environment, they create strong spaces that you can inhabit and that’s something I take to heart when recording music. Plus they had great musical collaborators, Badalamenti and Wendy Carlos, I mean c’mon.
Thanks again for doing this. I guess there’s only one last question. What’s next musically for you?
I’ve just completed a new album called Weather Calculator, it’s due to be released early spring, with the first single dropping at the end of the month. I changed it up again and recorded this one using only on the Korg Minilogue, and really started to get into its sequencer. So right now I’m just finishing off a couple of videos. Some of this new stuff has a real minimal yet cinematic feel, so I’m excited for people to hear it. It feels like a culmination of all my work last year.
Beyond that, there’s a few collaborative albums to be released. I just put everything out at hohmrecordings.bandcamp.com which makes it easy. There is another Lantz & Giacomelli release on the horizon, and Hypoluxo (my project with Brent D’Elia) is halfway through our second LP. And there’s always older recordings, there’s a variety of stuff in the can—maybe a collaborative archive vinyl release with the Summer Moon & Co. label. Meanwhile, I’ve already got some ideas for the next album. I just feel the need to buckle down again, 2016 was a freaking slaughterhouse of musicians, and it just makes me want to try hard to pick up the slack.
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