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Interview with Carl Sagan's Ghost

img  Tobias Fischer

What made Carl Sagan's work in particular and space in general interesting to you?
I was first exposed to Sagan’s work a couple of decades ago through his amazing television series Cosmos, and it remains a favorite of mine today. I still throw on the DVDs every once in a while. It’s trippy, it has cool synth music, Sagan flies around in a spaceship, it’s entertaining, and it’s informative. I’ve always admired Sagan’s quest for knowledge, and his desire to understand the cosmos. And even though we approach things differently – I’m a deist, he was an atheist – I am greatly inspired by his passion. I like the Gnostic traditions, and of learning about the divine through knowledge and experience. In my mind, there is no separation between the divine and the scientific, the physical and the metaphysical – each only further strengthens the other; science is the language with which god composed the cosmic fugue. And so in this regard, I believe that Sagan got closer to understanding the divine than many - maybe most - religious people ever will.

Are you keeping up with the scientific aspect of astronomy?
Lately I’m more into the crazy theoretical stuff like string theory, and parallel worlds and what not. I like the gonzo stuff from SF authors like Rudy Rucker - as a computer science professor, he uses science fiction to explore his theories of the fourth dimension and infinity, and I also like stuff from Michio Kaku and Brian Greene. I’m not so much into astronomy, but I am into how everything is tied together. What is the unifying theory? Everything in the universe is made of the same stuff, and the connections between everything – the melody, harmony, and rhythm of the cosmic fugue – fascinates me.

So would you say that in your music you're rather interested in a particular idea of space rather than the real thing?
I’m not really into the space sub-genre of ambient music. I’m more into the earthbound stuff. I try to imbue my music with organic qualities and earthly tones; I try to create sounds and moods that draw people into the places they are, rather than music that pushes them into an outer realm. I guess you could say I’m more into inner-space than I am outer-space - just as space is infinitely large, so too are the inner qualities of humanity. I think space is interesting in that it is so vast, mysterious, and unknown. There are so many questions to ask about it, most of which we don’t even know yet. It’s like we don’t even know what to ask because there are so many possibilities.

Your early recordings were made as far back as the 1990s and went into an entirely different direction. What were those times like?
It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. I started recording music around 1991-2, on a small Tascam four-track. It was my friends Jeff Martin, Ryan Tallman, Ronny Dzerigian, and me; we all learned the recording and writing process together. We would always work on different projects with each other, and we’d help each other out. I also played in a number of bands in high school. The four main ones were Fish Paddle, a garage band; Checkmate, a ska band; Igloo, an early post-rock kind of thing; and Flaming June, an alt-rock band.
In around 1997, I moved to Southern California to try to “make it” in the music biz, and quickly realized that I just wasn’t cut out for that lifestyle. However, I never stopped writing and recording. Conversely, my passion for music grew tenfold after realizing that I didn’t want to pursue music as a career; once I removed money as the measure of success I became a much happier artist. The only thing riding on my music and recordings was the quality. If I was happy with it, that’s all that mattered.
In the late ‘90s, early ‘00s, I recorded a number of albums as Twin Cam Akiko, Z Phantom 4, Barry, and MK Ultra. This was a very prolific time. I released most of these recordings on a fake record label maintained by Vance Hernandez, who records under the name Inhale, and Chris Reid, who records under the name The Sirago 17. During this period I moved from analog four-track into the digital world of PC recording. It was a great transition. I liked the period of time in which I learned the recording process, because I had to really work to understand things work with brevity in the beginning, but then, slowly, as technology progressed, I was able to expand the possibilities. I can’t imagine starting out today; it must be entirely overwhelming. There are so many options and possibilities out there, and recording music is super cheap now. I liked working with limitations, and then expanding at a natural rate; it forced me to really learn my equipment and what I could do with it.
All of these early albums are available - or will be soon - from my website. In all, including the CSG stuff, I’ve recorded over twenty albums. Up until just a few years ago, the early stuff has never been made available to the general public. I always made the albums for me and my friends.

You've mentioned that „you've always wondered why bands take so long to write and record an album“.
I started writing and recording my own music in the mid ‘90s. I have completed over twenty albums now. I’ve also worked full time, and I went to school and worked full time during a few of those years. So if I’ve made that many albums in just my spare time, usually a dozen hours a week, or a couple hours a night. Why does it take “professional” bands, musicians who don’t have normal day jobs, years to write and record an album? Why aren’t Radiohead, for example, putting out an EP every few months, or a couple of albums a year? They could write and record on the road if they are touring, and if they’re not touring they’re probably not clocking it at some office job for eight hours a day, so what are they doing? Seems like a lot of wasted time to me.
If I were doing music full time, I’d probably have over fourty albums done by now. This is especially true now, in this digital age where musicians can record full albums just about any where there is electricity. I am a huge believer in constant output. I think someone who really gets that is Steven Wilson. That dude is always working on music; he’s always releasing something either as a producer or the artist. I do like to work fast. I am absolutely NOT a perfectionist. They say that a work of art is never finished, only abandoned, and I believe this; maybe I just abandon stuff quicker than other artists. If I were a perfectionist, I’d never release anything because nothing is ever really finished or “good enough.” I simply have to let things go at a certain point.

There was a long stretch when you hardly produced any music at all.
In 2004 I moved from California to Seattle, Washington. Right before the move I started a project called I Am Not the Janitor, a post-drone, noise, psychedelic, post-alt-rock thing (ah, genre semantics!). This was probably the most fun band I’ve ever played in. Our line-up consisted of a number of guitars and keyboards and a drum machine. I was fully in “band mode” during this point, and so when I moved it was hard for me to make music by myself. I didn’t know anyone in Seattle. Also, at the time I lived in a tiny little apartment and didn’t have any room for my gear. I put my gear in storage – out of sight, out of mind. And that was OK. I’ve always been one to move easily from one hobby to another. I started writing more, and just did other things. Things tend to come and go in my life. Sometimes I’m into making music, and sometimes I’m not. I don’t fight it. This is one reason why I’ve never really been concerned with being “signed” or making a living off of my music. I just never know when I might feel the need to put music aside and move onto something else. I always return to music, but I wouldn’t want to have the pressure of HAVING to make music hanging over my head.

How did you go from this „silent“ period to the first Carl Sagan's Ghost album in 2009?
Around 2008 I moved to a bigger place and had room for my gear. I was also feeling the itch to record again. However, the real catalyst was hearing Marconi Union’s album “Distance” for the first time. I hadn’t heard an album that inspiring in many, many years. After listening to it, I just had to start making music again. Also during this time my tastes were changing. I was less into the more noiser, shoegazer stuff and more into the softer stuff like Harold Budd and other ambient artists.  Creating atmosphere and sonically interesting textures has always been important to me, but I used to do that through noisier, more “rocking” techniques. During the previous few years I had been listening to Brian Eno’s and Harold Budd’s Ambient 1 and 2, and Brian Eno’s Apollo, which also featured Daniel Lanois, perhaps my greatest inspiration, over and over again. So I was fully into an ambient zone.

What did Lanois and Budd bring to the table?

I love sonically interesting music. I am far more concerned with textures and dynamics than I am with overly complex arrangements and chord progressions. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere created by Lanois and Budd, and I guess I’d have to throw Eno in there as well, although it almost seems like a cliché. I was first exposed to Lanois and Eno when I was in the 4th grade and I first heard U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire.” Even at this young age I knew there was something special about this recording. I was first exposed to Budd with his work with the Cocteau Twins, and then on The Pearl, his collaboration with Eno. These three sound-sculptors/musicians simply know how to create sonically interesting textures; the way the manipulate sound to create ambiance and atmosphere is a great inspiration to me.

In which way did the netlabel scene present an ideal outlet for your work as Carl Sagan's Ghost?
I like the netlable process because I can approach them on my terms without signing a contract. I can take my time finishing the music, and then find a netlabel that suits it or wants it. When I began to record as CSG, I noticed that the ambient community of artists and listeners had largely migrated to this netlabel format, and seemed to have embraced the Creative Commons licensing. I mean let’s face it, there is not a lot of money to be had in this niche of a niche, and unless you’re releasing stuff on Darla or 12k, you’re probably better off just doing it yourself.
The main reason I chose the netlabel route is because of the built in fan base. Labels like Earth Mantra, Soft Phase, BFW, and Circles and Lines all have a steady bunch of people who download the label’s releases because they like the label’s catalog. It’s simply a good way to be exposed to an already-established community of listeners.

Did you feel as though ambient, rather than being a form of background wallpaper, is really a very flexible and ambitious genre?
Ask ten people what “ambient” music is, and you’ll probably get ten different answers ranging in everything from the quiet, peaceful, new age noodling of Patrick O’Hearn, to the sonic assault and dense soundwaves of Lustmord. Personally, I tend to subscribe to Eno’s definition stating that ambient music should be as listenable as it is ignorable, although I don’t follow this exclusively. With music, I am first and foremost interested in listening to and creating things that are sonically interesting. I like music with space, textures, nuance, and atmosphere. The ambient genre gives artists a lot of room to experiment with these qualities. I am also into long, deliberate pieces more concerned with changes in dynamics and atmosphere than chords and traditional arrangements. I strive to create music that can be appreciated on different levels; I like my ambient music to work as background music, perhaps to read along to, or to fall asleep to. However, I also like to make music that can be actively engaged, and that is interesting technically and artistically. So in other words, yes, I think that the ambient genre is one that is extremely flexible. Bands like cLOUDDEAD have incorporated ambient elements into their abstract hip hop, while post-rock bands like Isis, Mogwai, and Jacob use ambiance to add dynamics and nuance to their compositions. I think ambient music can be a genre and a part of an overall technique.

What are criteria for a good ambient-production from your perspective?
I think it’s pretty simple: varied dynamics and an atmosphere that draws the listener in. As far as producing and mixing goes, I tend to keep things quiet. I absolutely hate the modern tendencies to BRICKWALL everything, making things as loud as possible while also stripping away the dynamics and nuance of a track. I like variation in my music; from barely audible quiet moments to peaks of sound that demand attention. A dynamic, active mix and master will naturally create atmosphere because then all of the sounds are nestled in and fit perfectly within the mix. I strive to create space with my music, a place in which the listener feels enveloped by sound.

Has the option of piling layer and layer of music on top of each other  perhaps been a problem for the electronic music scene?
I can’t speak to the electronic music scene in general, mainly because I often wonder if I’m even a part of this scene; sometimes I feel helplessly out of the loop. Personally, I simply always try to work with as few pieces as possible. I find it easier to navigate and comprehend. My mind works better when things are kept simpler. Just the other night I broke down my studio and kept only the bare essentials up and ready. I’m forcing myself to work with only the laptop, a mixer, an Alesis Micron, a Roland Gaia, and a guitar. I put my Alesis QS6.2, Nord Lead, Waldorf Blofeld, and MIDI controller away – out of sight, out of mind. I find that too many options just adds confusion and indecisiveness to the process. The same goes with the number of tracks in a recording. So while I could conceivably have hundreds of audio and MIDI tracks in a recording, I choose to work with only a dozen or so, usually less, sometimes more.

You mentioned: „I really love how in this ultra-clean digital age we use plug-ins to make our recordings sound old and worn out. There is a delicious irony to this process; but, my ambient music wouldn't be complete without some simulated tape hiss and wow and flutter, two things that I used to try to mix away.“
I think it was Brian Eno who said something like “imperfections become desirable when they’re optional.” Back in the early days of analog 4-track recording, I’d try my hardest to make things sound as clean as possible, often getting frustrated with too much tape his, wow and flutter, or other imperfections from the medium. However with digital recording everything sounds super crisp and clean, and so I like to dirty things up a bit. Sometimes I’ll add real tape hiss, and sometimes I’ll simulate it with a plug-in. With plug-ins for tape hiss and saturation, and wow and flutter, I am able to use these things as effects, thus adding them or subtracting them as I so desire. I’m more in control of how they impact the overall mix.

If I understood correctly, CSG is now to be put on the backburner a bit. Why is that?

I’ll just be switching focus for awhile. I imagine that I will still do a CSG album-or-two per year, but I’m starting on something a little different. I think the new project is different enough that I don’t think it makes sense to keep that name; it’s more beat and song orientated, but it is still largely electronic, and still very atmospheric. I still have a few things coming out as CSG including a game soundtrack. I’m also working on another collaboration with my mates Saffron Slumber and Specta Ciera, and I have one more solo album, called Nanobot Songs in the works. So there are still quite a few things to look forward to.

The Bloodhound Gang once described your music as „The British Airways Lounge on Jupiter“. Would you say that's an apt description of your music?
Man, that was wild. I have no idea how the BHG discovered my music. I mean, we’re so totally different. I thought that was pretty hilarious. I liked that description, although it may not be totally accurate. But hey, that’s cool. I also liked how he described how my music sounds, “Owowowowowowowowoowowowowow.” Now that’s ambient, right?

By Tobias Fischer

Carl Sagan's Ghost Discography:
Music for Home Offices: Volume One (self-released) 2009
Behind Clouds (self-released) 2009
At The End Of It All (Soft Phase) 2009   
Darkness And The Light (Earth Mantra) 2009   
Before I Go (Parts One And Two) (Audio Gourmet) 2010   
Myth Of The Near Future/ w. Saffron Slumber / Specta Ciera (Circlesandlines) 2010
At Dawn’s Harbor/ w. Saffron Slumber / Specta Ciera (Luxus-Arctica) 2010
Colonial Spa EP (Luxus-Arctica) 2010
Music for Home Offices: Volume Two (self-released) 2010
Especially for Them (BFW Recordings) 2010
Talking in Technicolor (self-released) 2011


Carl Sagan's Ghost
Carl Sagan's Ghost at Bandcamp

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