Last week, Burn FM music team member, Daniel Farnham, had the pleasure of interviewing ambient composer Alaskan Tapes (Brady). During an eclectic Skype call bouncing across the Atlantic, Daniel and Brady discussed his new album, Views From Sixteen Stories, his most accomplished work to date. Soon our conversation veered into more theoretical territory questioning Spotify culture, ambience as a label and literature. Reflecting on the interview, it comes as no surprise that such a compelling personality is the creator of equally intricate and crafted work.
Hi Brady, great to speak to you. It’s not often you get to speak to someone within the genre of ambient. Being a University radio station, opportunities seem to veer to more popular genres so I am really grateful for this.
For sure, I love doing this stuff. I don’t really do interviews that often so it is still weird for me.
I am glad to hear that because I haven’t done too many myself either. I want to talk about your most recent album Views From Sixteen Stories. In your own words, how does it compare to your two previous full length releases?
With this one I wanted to change it up a bit, I wanted to add drums back into the songs. With my past two records I completely neglected drums from a long time, technically its more post-rock than my other records. I really tried to flesh out my ideas, instead of putting separate tracks on an album I wanted it to be a cohesive piece.
Interesting you said that because, when I listened through all of your work, this album created an atmosphere that was cohesive to a single body of work.
I really appreciate that because it was definitely the goal behind it.
It’s your first fully instrumental album. Was that a choice?
You know what, I didn’t even realise that. The singer that often sings on my stuff is Chantal who’s also my girlfriend, and on this one she just wasn’t feeling singing.
When you write do you seek to expand the sound of your albums or do you tend to see creation more as a process of refinement or taking what’s come before and trying to advance it?
So in-between albums I try to do an EP where I take the sound of the last album and I refine it. Then, with the next album I take that sound and try to switch it up a bit so that it seems like a gradient of albums instead of them all being a different sound than lumped together. I always try to take from the last one, add some more stuff and make it a little bit different.
Do you feel the EP is your final note and afterthought?
Yeah, its always a continuation its, always me realising which tracks I have the most fun making and then I’ll just make a short project in that style. It’s a refinement thing.
You just said you take inspiration from the tracks that you enjoy writing, what tracks do they tend to be?
Lately its been all the drone tracks. Like on the last album the track, Another Song To Stop The Spinning, the only actual drone track on it, and it’s 8 minutes 30 seconds, that’s what I am gravitating towards. Views From Tower Two is another one like it. Those are my favourite ones by far, I always tend to go for those types of tracks, I think that’s my strongpoint.
Thats interesting that those are your favourites because my favourite track off your last album was Voga. It seemed to create so much within such a short time. It had such a perfect, circular feel to it. Could you enlighten me on how you went about creating it?
(Laughter) That song is actually called Still, and Voga is the person I made it with…
Oh my days!
He’s another pianist and producer from Toronto. He came up with the piano part for it after hearing a bunch of the songs off the album.
So it was a reflection to what you had already written?
Exactly. So what I did was just approve that and then write the horns on top. It was that simple.
When you go about writing for instruments, do you have an exact instrument in mind or do you have to find a particular instrument to create a specific atmosphere?
I usually have the exact instrument in mind. The reason why French horn is all over this album is because Olafur Arnalds, he used a lot of it in his EP and it sounded so good. I knew I needed to make tracks with horns.
I wouldn’t say a melancholy sound, but because of the horns, the timbre of the tracks are more vulnerable. An inspired choice!
I love the French horn when it is used quietly and more deep, it comes out so smooth.
So when you were talking about Still you said it was a collaboration, is that a typical process for you?
I know a lot of people who collaborate and they’ll send each other tracks back and forth, but whenever I’ll do it its literally: ‘Send me a piano piece and I’ll write over’, and then it is done. I don’t like going back and forth and that’s why I don’t really collaborate too often on my songs. A lot of the time it can just end up taking for ever.
When you write solo how does that change your approach?
A lot of improvisation. I’ll just start on the piano or the drone, usually all the tracks are done after a day or two.
I’m really interested in your process, is it a spontaneous flow or is it more a period where you sit down and write, editing over time until you have the correct thing?
Its pretty spontaneous, when I write it comes quick and then I’ll get into droughts of writer’s block where I won’t write anything for weeks. Then I’ll write four tracks I really love. So it is hit and miss a lot of the time. I never really plan out when, it is very spontaneous.
To help you get out of that block, what do you do? Is it a process of listening to new records that inspire you or more one of self reflection on your old work?
Its both! Making music has pretty much ruined my listening experience because when I listen to music, even when it is not in the genre, I’ll pick up on things like ‘Oh! I can do this in my track’! Then the idea will stick around, I’ll let them simmer a bit, then write them.
It ruined your experience of listening!
Not completely, but when you are constantly thinking about what you can do with what you have just heard.
Ever hear something you feel you could write better?
Oh a lot (laughter)! Especially with the post-classical and ambient stuff, I’ll hear something and pick out one thing and think that what I can do with that is better. But obviously thats not always the case.
Interesting you said post-classical because when I read about your work or other artists with similar sounds, the main word that is used is ambient. Do you assign your music that genre?
I do just because it is simple that way. Its easier to say ambient music rather than post-modern classical mixed with this, that and that. Although my music has gone away from the typical ambient sound especially with the drums. But yeah, I still describe my sound as ambient.
I feel that ambient has a negative connotation to it. For example people will listen to ambient when they study, perhaps not treating it in the same way as typical classical. When listening to your work, the intricacies of it perhaps deserve a better association.
I hear it a lot from other ambient artists, it is kinda frustrating when people describe it as background music, even though it is technically. There is a lot of nuance in the really good stuff. It really takes a lot of attention to appreciate it and hear what’s going on. So when people use it for meditation or studying it is always frustrating. Though you can do whatever you want from the music, it is not really up to the artist.
True, when you put out a record you’re sort of giving away your interpretation and creative ownership. I guess it must be frustrating when ambient is bound by such stereotypes.
It’s also frustrating with the musical climate that we live in with Spotify and stuff. You almost want it to be categorised because then it will land on the playlists and then it will be successful monetarily; then you actually see that nobody is paying attention to it, the whole thing it is very frustrating.
I am quite interested in modern classical music so I try to browse around. Thats how I first became aware of your work, it was through exploring playlists on Spotify of ambient and post-classical compositions where individual artists can get lost amongst everyone. So when I had the opportunity to interview you I studied all your releases, but by mistake I listened to your music in shuffle. After listening to everything in its correct order and pacing, each song became so much more enhanced. Do you think Spotify is negating the way we listen to music.
It’s really hard. When I really come to think about it I do. But then even when I listen to music I will put it onto shuffle. It’s a habit and it is very convenient that way, but if there was an easy way for people to actually listen to the albums in full I think it would be better for music. But that’s not going to happen unless everyone gets onto Bandcamp and even then you can still shuffle.
What would be the best way for people to appreciate your music?
I guess the standard answer is to buy an album! But I don’t really mind, a lot of the time I give away the albums for free. As long as they listen I am happy. The fact that people actually do listen to my music, millions of times is really incredible.
Do you find their reactions to your music helps inform your new compositions? Do you cater your music to the reactions for people or is it purely a business for the self?
It depends on the project. You can see which tracks are most popular and that’s for a reason so of course you’ll gravitate towards that. But at the same time you can also make whatever you want and hopefully people will like those ones as well. It’s kind of a bit of both.
I guess as a musician who is constantly putting out music frequently, you always have to find a balance of progress whilst trying to enrapture the same audience that really appreciated your last work.
Exactly. Thats why the way I write the music is in a gradient; instead of just releasing an album full of post-rock tracks that alienates the audience that listened to the last albums. You have got to do it in steps and eventually people will get on board with the new stuff as well as the newer sounds.
With the gradient idea, as soon as you finish an album are you straight away writing the next EP that acts as a final sequence?
Up until this album I always had the next EP ready by the time the album came out and then I knew I would release it a few months afterwards. This album… I don’t have any music ready! But with someone who releases music as often as I do it is easier to do the gradient thing. You can actually in real time see what people like, make a track like it and see if it works.
In which direction do you think your next EP will go, or does it merely depend on when you sit down?
So I am actually struggling with that right now. I don’t know whether its going to be an all ambient drone EP or whether it is going to be a long form post-rock EP that’s made up of four twelve minute tracks. I have ideas for both, I just don’t know which to do first. It is easy to do the ambient ones as you don’t need to record drums, you don’t need to record very many instruments. It’s all in the box.
When you write the EP do you ever feel eager to move on?
If I feel that way then I just won’t finish it and move onto the next album. Even this time I am excited to go back to the moods and feelings of Sixteen Stories and fix some stuff up.
Why the title Views From Sixteen Stories?
I think there is an ambient track called Views From… I can’t remember who it is by or where I heard it, but then I stuck with the Views From and Sixteen Stories just sounded good (laughter)!
Is that how most of the tracks are titled? Most songs take their name from a lyric or at least a lyrical theme with obvious links. With an instrumental track how do you work about naming them.
I read a lot, a lot of poetry, a lot of novels and whenever I see a line that seems interesting I’ll write it down. Whenever I am trying to name tracks I’ll go back to my list and switch around words until it sounds good. The EP, The Times Are Tired, which was actually going to be the name for this album (but Views From Sixteen Stories sounded better), was actually from a poem by… ah I won’t be able to remember… ‘somebody’… the poem was The Times Are Tidy, and I just thought Tired sounded better for music! A lot of the songs are like that.
(Laughter) When I write up the interview I’ll pretend you had the name straight off the bat, its ok.
I’ll send it over Skype. It is a very famous poem and I can’t believe I am forgetting her name!
(Brady sent me the poem straight after: The Times Are Tidy by Sylvia Plath)
Bit off track here but what do you like to read?
I am really into like kind of Gothic novels, I’d assume that would be the genre that they are in. The dark, poetically written novels, they’re really good and appeal to me for some reason. But while I was making Views I was reading a lot of memoirs and then the poetry just comes in and out of that. I don’t have a favourite poet and I don’t even really pay attention the who the poet is.
Because your music creates such a clear atmosphere, when you read a poem or a book do you ever find yourself visualising a musical atmosphere to accompany it?
I do, especially when I find a line that sticks with me, I’ll hear the atmosphere of the novel or poem and it can be translated into music. Its very strange because in actuality it doesn’t work that way when I am writing.
Have you ever considered writing a poem to maybe accompany tracks?
Yeah, I think about it a lot, and even with photography to accompany tracks, specific photos and photos with poems. But… I’m not good enough at writing poetry (laughter).
Well there’s only one way to get better! I think it would be cool to see.
It’s very difficult.
Back on track, I have a quote that I am interested to hear your reaction to. It’s from Brian Eno who sort of popularised ambient: ’ambient must be as ignorable as it is interesting’.
Yes, personally I love the quote and it goes back to what we were talking about before with background music. It is interesting because in essence that is what ambient music is. It both extremely detailed and complicated but at the same time it comes off as super simple and lazy almost. I think about the quote all the time because people tweet it constantly! So when you are making it you wanna try all the cool things and make it nuanced but you also want to make it listenable and ambient music needs to be simplified in that way. It’s a Catch 22 almost.
Do you ever wish he didn’t say that?
No, I feel that quote really popularised ambient music, I think because of just that quote people actually pay attention to it. It makes it interesting. Anything that Brian does I am always for, he’s the God Father, so he can say whatever he wants and I will always agree!
He is a genius, but perhaps it has led to a bit of misrepresentation.
Yeah it definitely has but again you have to work with both sides of that quote. It’s the same with most music I assume. There needs to be those catchy headlines.
Could I ask, I know that you are interested in classical, but what other genres are you typically drawn to?
Oh gosh, well, it goes in fazes. My first love in music was just the Beatles, I loved them and I still do. As I grew up I tried to push myself into new things. One album that really interested me was an album with the Beat poets Steve Allen and Jack Kerouac which was spoken word over a jazz backing. It really engaged me with music that wasn’t all too linear, music that didn’t have to sound right to be good or thought provoking. And from there it has spewed everywhere. Anything that is unique, different and holds a level of craft, I am fascinated by.
Thats really cool, I always love hearing what other people are into because they won’t tell you exactly what they’re into. If someone is into harsh noise they are not going to go around spreading that.
You really have me thinking now! My favourite, at the moment… there was a folk singer called Tim Buckley, he released an album called Starsailor and listening to it was just the most incredible thing. Since then I’ve looked at every piece of music I’ve ever heard differently. The way he composed and the way he sang was so abnormal, it really blew my mind.
What was that called… Tim Buckley? I am definitely going to check that out.
Please do! It can be quite brutal at times…It is always interesting. There are all these experimental folk artists, even when it is hard to listen to it is super inspiring sometimes. And freeing just to know that they were able to do it, release it and have people listen to it.
Aside from the more classical, ambient genre, what do you listen to?
A lot of people are surprised by this but I grew up as a… a… metal kid! Like really heavy death metal. Not as much recently, I have sort of gotten out of it over the past year. Lately I have just been listening to a lot of folk. Its either super super heavy or super soft.
Just to close, in as many or as little words as you want, why should people listen to your latest release: Views From Sixteen Stories?
Let me think about this one… That’s a really good question! It is really hard to say why people should listen to this album over other really great artists. Well if they are looking for something that is varied in styles from ambient, solo-piano and post-rock it gives you a nice viewpoint from all the genres.
I was hoping for something a little more emphatic (laughter). I was hoping for ‘this is the best work I have released so far, containing elements of my soul that I want to share with you’.
Well you know you can add that! I mean I do think this is my best work so far!
Once again thank you so much, it has been a pleasure speaking to you.
I really appreciate it, thanks!
Written by Daniel Farnham.