Check the full text of my conversation with Rock-a-Rolla, regarding the history of Bee Mask, the culture of records, etc. An edited version of this interview was published in the August 2011 issue.
Q: Can you give us a brief history of Bee Mask - when, how and why did you start the project?
A: Bee Mask is something that I sort of fell into without any grand design over the course of a few years. The earliest recordings date from 2003, while the name and the notion of doing live performances informed by the aesthetic of those recordings came about in 2005. I’d been working on a band with a couple other people, doing something guitar-based and more along the lines of say, The Dead C or late Ramleh. That project imploded pretty quickly, leaving me with time on my hands and a few outstanding engagements at which I opted to perform alone. At the time, I think I’d only played solo twice despite having been a musician for most of my life, and one of those gigs was a summer camp talent show, so the naked terror of it was certainly something new. From that point on, Bee Mask was essentially a matter of “we’ll see where this goes.” Every time I think I’m done with it, it mutates into something new.
Q: How do you create your music? What are your instruments of choice?
A: I’ve used a pretty wide range of instruments over the years, as the germ of a piece often comes about as a result of my working open-endedly with whatever materials feel most engaging and satisfying at the time, both in an intellectual sense and a more visceral one, while the completed work comes about as a result of looking at the potential of those experiments and fleshing them out using whatever tools seem appropriate to the job. In practice, the pallette of Bee Mask has been slanted in favor of synthesizers (both handmade and not) and percussion (also both handmade and not), plus a certain amount of guitar, piano, and voice (none of them articulated in a particularly conventional fashion), and effects obtained through sampling and tape manipulation. Looking forward, I wouldn’t say that any of this is set in stone. I don’t have any really binding loyalties in this department and am always looking for new techniques and materials. As a matter of necessity, my basic orientation is skeptical and pragmatic, rather than sentimental or idealistic.
Q: You’ve released a steady stream of cassettes and CD-Rs, a lot of them on Deception Island. Is that your own label?
A: Yes. Deception Island has been a sort of side project of mine for the past seven years or so. Prior to that I’d been part of a collective that operated an art gallery and as my curatorial interests were mainly to do with sound, performance, and multiples, I saw DI as an outlet for those preoccupations that wouldn’t require me to stay in one place and deal with the day-to-day grind of keeping a physical venue open and funded.
Q: Were these homemade recordings?
A: Some odds and ends were recorded in outside studios or live on location, but yes; the bulk of the source material for Bee Mask has always been recorded at home. Home recording has been a big part of my life for as long as I’ve had the means to do it. I spent a lot of time as a kid making pause-button edits, taping over erase heads, and the like, collaging things up with no particular end in mind. A cassette four-track and some awareness of precedent came later. Now I mainly work back and forth between a sampler and a DAW in spite of my throughgoing cynicism about the idea of technological progress, and while I’m really starting to warm to the idea of mixing in a proper studio with a decent monitoring environment, I see tracking and editing at home as a basic component of Bee Mask, at least for the time being. My own tendencies toward the insular and domestic are very much a part of the fabric of the project at this point.
Q: How did you end up getting on board Spectrum Spools?
A: I’ve known John Elliott for quite a long time and we’d done a number of releases on each others’ labels prior to the creation of Spectrum Spools, so it was a pretty organic thing. Last winter, when Spools was on the drawing board, he asked me about doing some Bee Mask reissues and I jumped at the chance to bring some semblance of order to a back catalogue that was starting to feel pretty chaotic, and to work with really fantastic mastering and cutting engineers in the process.
Q: What does being on a more widely available label mean to Bee Mask?
A: That’s a tricky question, but ultimately I think it boils down to clarity of purpose. I’m immensely wary of the cliche that the point of making music is to get it heard by as many people as possible. I think that a lot of musicians have learned to talk about what they do in those terms because it’s what’s expected of them, but my gut-level suspicion is that what many of us really want is secure access to the resources that allow us to continue making work, freedom to follow the internal logic of our practices wherever it may lead, the acceptance of what we do as legitimate labor, and the opportunity to give something of substance back to the cultures that formed us. Chalking it all up to attention-seeking is a way of pathologizing artists and excusing society’s often despicable treatment of them.
I mention all of this because I’ve been hugely ambivalent about many of the shifts in the cultural landscape that have taken place while I’ve been at this, from the quasi-professionalization of tape labels to the efficiency with which the internet reduces one’s work to data and converts it into social capital for other people. None of these phenomena are entirely negative, and basically no one’s actions in this cultural arena are motivated by negativity - if anything, they’re motivated by appreciation - but I worry that we’ve inadvertently created a worst-of-both-worlds paradigm in which the imperatives of DIY shade imperceptibly into the imperatives of neoliberalism. That’s a very circuitous way of saying that working in a slightly more professionalized context has felt really healthy and refreshing because one has more of a sense of the expected scale of a release and whom it’s addressing, not to mention more time and resources with which to focus on really pushing the envelope of one’s craft and doing something better and more ambitious with each successive release.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your music - which artists were a formative influence on you, and what are your listening habits?
A: I’d say that the infrastructure of a really viable project isn’t formed from influences alone, but also from utopian ideas about how they fit together, absurd hypothetical scenarios involving their collision, etc. I’ve been doing Bee Mask long enough that it’s sort of developed its own grammar and often feels like it’s proceeding in a basically hermetic and self-referential fashion, but some the animating ideas include the influence of soundsystem culture and aesthetics on the “suitcase noise” of the American rust belt as the latest manifestation of the ongoing post-punk/post-reggae continuum, the idea of a punk music with David Tudor instead of (or in addition to) Black Flag, the idea a prog/art rock busily churning out flaky versions of Xenakis or Parmegiani instead of flaky versions of Copeland or Mussorgsky or whatever, the conviction that the music we’re in the habit of calling “psychedelic” is anything but, and the desire to explore certain ideas drawn from the discourses around art in other media without resorting to tired critical tropes like “synaesthesia.”
As for my listening habits, the culture of records and the rituals (both private and convivial) we create around them are massively important to me and there are few experiences that I look forward to more than sitting down specifically to listen to a record straight through as an end in itself, getting together with friends and spinning recent discoveries for each other, or dropping in on a favorite bricks-and-mortar shop on tour. Also, being part of a huge network of artists and labels trading records through the mail truly makes me feel like I’m “living the dream,” for what it’s worth. That’s how I hear most of the new music that comes my way.
The other side of this coin is that I feel that it’s important for people who make music to know when not to listen to it. At the risk of waxing new-agey, one of the most positive lessons I’ve learned in the past few years has been about experiencing the insane abundance of records in the world as a gift rather than a burden and letting go of the sense of obligation to hear all of them. Similarly, I think it’s important to break the link in one’s brain between appreciating a record and feeling a need to own it. Better to hear it and get excited about the fact that one lives in a world with it, and better to retain the ability to listen to a record as though one might never hear it again, no?
That said, I think it’s just as crucial to allow for the idea of a record that works its magic on you over months or even years (sometimes in ways that are only peripherally related to the audio itself), and not to assume that one has all the answers or give too much weight to first impressions, which is very easy to do now. What’s compelling about records is precisely that our relationship with them is just as fundamentally irrational as our relationship with any other form of reified time.
Q: Your last release - Canzoni - was created over quite a long period of time according to the info. Can you tell us a little about this record?
A: My studio practice usually involves working on several pieces in parallel at any given time rather than making one record and moving onto the next. I like to think that this makes each individual record stronger and ultimately results in deeper and stranger connections between different releases. For example, I might go on a spree of tracking for a week or two while wrapping my head around a new piece of gear, getting ready for a tour, trying to dislodge a creative block, or for any number of other reasons and then come back to those sessions a year or more after the fact when I’m in an editing mood or when I have deadlines to meet and end up using pieces of them on four or five different releases for completely different reasons and to completely different ends.
Canzoni is a good example of that process of creating the backbone of a piece from accumulated home recordings and using this backbone as a basis for subsequent overdubs and edits and I remember being particularly amused at my success in fitting a few really obstinate pieces into the finished work - things that I liked a lot, but had had sitting around for years without having been able to find exactly the right use for them. It was originally put together for release as a cassette on Gift Tapes, a really fantastic label operated by Jason Anderson of Brother Raven, and while I usually feel that Bee Mask releases are pretty medium-specific, I’m very happy with how it holds up as an LP as well.
Q: Another new album - Elegy - is a compilation of your earlier works “reimagined, reedited and remastered”. How much of the original recordings remained and how much was redone?
A: No new audio was tracked during the making of Elegy, actually; it’s more of a pure collage. Once I committed to the project, I spent a week or so listening back through everything I’d released as Bee Mask (with the exception of things that were still widely available at the time) and taking notes on what held up in hindsight and what didn’t, which bits were personal favorites, etc. Once the general scope of the project was clear, I spent another couple weeks dealing with preproduction - getting the basic audio quality of the source material somewhat consistent, as these pieces had been recorded under a hugely diverse set of circumstances and reflected the sort of willingness to indulge crackpot ideas about fidelity that I think is very appropriate for a short-run cassette, but not so much for something with designs on posterity.
Having done all that, I sat down with my notes and about ten hours worth of source material as though I was getting ready to edit a new record, with the notion that I was going to be as unsentimental as possible about what ended up in the finished work and what stayed on the cutting room floor. Editing and mixing ultimately took about six weeks of total madness, working nocturnally in the middle of winter, not leaving the house for days at a time, and all the usual stuff that really erodes one’s grip on reality. In the end, the extent to which Elegy resembles its sources varies greatly over the course of the record; there are parts of it in which ten minutes pass without an edit and parts in which there’s constant automation and edits every few seconds. I liked the challenge of making something that would stand on its own while also providing some sort of nominal documentary overview and offering a compelling puzzle for people who’d heard some or all of the original releases.
Q: A lot of your cassettes are long sold out. Are you planning to revisit more of your back catalogue?
A: As of this writing, not really, at least not as far as the tapes and cdrs are concerned. I feel like I did what I set out to do with “Elegy” and it’s time to move forward for a while.
Q: What are your plans for the near future?
A: I’m getting ready to perform at Voice of the Valley in late August, firming up plans for an eastern US tour with Drainolith in the fall and sorting out some options for getting to Australia and also over to the UK and EU for some shows late this year or early next. Very much hoping that the dots connect on all of this and I’m able to check out some places I might not have gotten to go otherwise! On the studio end of it, I’m working on an LP of new Bee Mask material for probable early-mid 2012 release on Spectrum Spools, a suite of commissioned pieces for a festival dedicated to the legacy of the Sonic Arts Union, some tracks for a new project (featuring guest appearances from Autre Ne Veut and a slew of others) that’s intended as an outlet for certain preoccupations of mine that fall well outside the boundaries of Bee Mask, and a handful of other odds and ends that are still under wraps for the time being.