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Interview with Ian Tescee

img  Tobias
article image

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello! Thanks for having me. I’m in Colorado. If I look out my front window on this picture postcard day, I see aspen trees turning gold against the dark pines, and Pike’s Peak shrouded in clouds. This is a good thing because it means I can go out and play in the snow soon. Any way, I’m doing my Sunday morning thing, drinking coffee and taking it all in.


What's on your schedule at the moment?
Russell Storey and I want to do a full CD collaboration on the wings of the Beneath The Ice track (featuring our combined efforts) being received so well. There’s a great synergy between Russell’s more dreamy, expansive style playing against me, you know, always trying to prove some point musically! It’s also an interesting take on our modern world in that Russell and I are such good friends, we talk about everything but yet are 11,830 km apart and rely entirely on the web to connect. Our friendship is an out-of-body experience in a way; we’re transcending the physical world, and this is the kind of concept that agrees with me well.


It's been nine years since your last regular studio album “Breathwork.“ What have you been up to in between?
Not to sound overly dramatic, but I pretty much began my life completely over. I had this notion about trying to lead a normal life, away from the music business. I felt a little worn-out from the constant adrenaline of running a full-production recording studio for so long, had sold it after enjoying a good run with it, and now had this blank slate in front of me. Of course, I wasn’t really done creating music at all, in fact I was more free than ever to do just that, but now I had no studio, so I had to build a new one. I went about this the same way that I make a record, one nail at a time, giving each nail my full present attention. A good metaphor, I think, because it’s all my meditation, you know? And to me every aspect was somehow so fascinating, every little detail, because I had this total vision for it. And to me it went by blazing fast, whereas my people around me all found it rather maddening; they perceived only glacial movement on my part. I wish I could reconcile the perceptions, I really do. Nine years does sound like a lot when you say it.


Conceptually, “A Traveler's Guide to Mars“ was essentially sparked by your friend W.K. Hartmann. Had the thought of returning to the cosmic territory of your debut “Io“ ever crossed your mind before?
I probably could have made a good living by following up with, for example, Europa the next year and Ganymede after that. But it would have been insincere, because everything about Io the place and Io the project just captured my imagination, immersed me and had a visceral effect. So your question - in fact I think this is a great question - because I always wanted to return to the same cosmic territory but it was the experience of it that was the cosmic element for me. And how do you get that back? I’ve got so much respect for artists who have this internal well of inspiration, but for me, I’m always looking for a new wormhole to get back over to the other side. For that, lots of inner and outer events need to coincide. Like finding lots of water on Mars, finishing the studio, hearing from W.K. and getting the opportunity to be part of the team producing the show for the Buhl Planetarium. With all that is going on, it made for a really good time for me to make a CD.


 “A Traveler's Guide to Mars“ started out as a commission for an electronic arrangement of Bartok's “Wooden Prince.“ How did it turn into the fully-fledged full-length it is now?
What I did at the outset was to go through all my works-in-progress, and sent the producer a CD of anything that suggested Mars while I worked on the Bartók. The script hadn’t been written yet, so I made suggestions about how Track 1 could be a scene like this and Track 2 could be a scene like that. W.K. and I had similar takes on capturing alien, spooky, exciting, forlorn, dune-blowing, volcano-erupting, lonely-night Mars. It quickly grew into much more than the Bartók cover. I’d have to say that doing the full-length CD was the very first thought I had because there were all these ideas I had been working on. Fortunately! Because I had less than six months before the first release. There was this instant recognition when listened through the filter of this unifying theme, Mars. I got really excited, and knew for certain I was in a really good position both to deliver the soundtrack plus flesh it out to full CD. So, I began with this idea of Dust-Red Sky playing while mysterious Mars came into view against inky blackness, then having a view from the surface as the craft drifted downward. Bill {W.K.} pictured a majestic Wooden Prince. Both these ideas got lukewarm response from the producer, who basically said WE’VE GOT ROVERS FLYING OVER DUNES HERE. Once I got the message that we were opening with an action shot (who knew??) then I switched gears and put The New World as the opener. If nothing else, that set a very interesting tone for the CD.


The actual “Wooden Prince“ is now only featured as a 2-minute miniature. Why did you decide to cut its length for the final version of the album?
When W.K. presented this piece to me, he compared it to Also Sprach Zarathustra, whose iconic opening is similarly short. The entire Richard Strauss piece, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's book, is quite lengthy and complex and something I have explored and enjoyed thoroughly. And likewise there’s a lot more to The Wooden Prince but this opening was all I was asked to do. It’s a good thing, too. When a symphony of virtuoso performers interprets the piece, there is incredible nuance and expression and feeling. I found it really challenging to emulate even that short bit, because I was trying to capture it, and it really took forever, like weeks. I was very particular about the tympani! I’ve actually played real tympani performing with real orchestras, and so I like putting it in my pieces. I use it for drama as in Io Theme, or even for irony as in Floaters and Sinkers {also from the Io CD}. When all was said and done, I really liked how The Wooden Prince turned out. I think I approached it with the proper respect and I’m proud of the result.


Large portions of the album sound as though they were composed on Piano and Guitar rather than on Synthesizer or Sequencer. Is that a correct perception?
That’s a great observation, and the question touches on something really fundamental. First, I’d want to say that my grand piano especially is my go-to instrument if I’m trying to get something substantial in the way of motif. The harmonics are so rich and so satisfying, it somehow instills confidence that helps me keep things simpler. The Aquamarine arpeggio began on piano, it’s a good example. When I wanted to get the track on the Groove Records Analogy analog sampler CD, I moved that line onto my vintage Oberheim which was a really magical fit. Now... here’s a secret: if you listen to the intro of Earthrise it features a loop playing an arpeggio very rapidly, which turns out to be none other than the sampled Aquamarine intro, sped up and now sounding completely alien. On the other hand, let’s talk about guitar. If I begin with guitar and compose something, I’ll get a good piece of music but chances are it won’t be a recognizable as Ian Tescee. Guitar is going to take me to a different place, so much so that I’ve got to say at that point, you know, take it outside.


Friends and respected colleagues are featured on “A Traveler's Guide to Mars.“ How far were their parts pre-defined before entering the studio and how much space was there for improvisation? How much of the instruments and passages were actually played by yourself?
I definitely want them to improvise, because if I’ve brought someone in it’s because I got tired of hearing so much me. At the same time, people like Nancy (Cello) and Russell are very generous and give me great latitude in editing their takes and tracks in a way that I feel will serve the piece. Russell, as I said, couldn’t make it into the studio but allowed me to sample what I wanted for Beneath The Ice. The first 40 seconds are entirely me and the last 50 are entirely Russell and in between is a segue between the two. I love Russell’s minute because it’s so magnificently different but still fits perfectly. Other than this, and Cello parts in Passport, It’s Time To Go Back-Part 1, and Billions and Billions of Stars, I did perform the entire album. But here I especially want to mention the guiding hand of Randall Davis, who consistently made just the right suggestions at just the right times. Without playing a single note on the record, he had enormous influence and I wouldn’t be nearly as happy with the CD otherwise.


In which way were your production decisions guided by the fact that the music was at least partially conceived for a planetarium with its very own acoustics?
That was the best part! Swirling wind in 360 degrees, and spinning synthesizers around the theater... I had a surround sound mix in my control room the entire time; it didn’t go down to stereo until the very end. Take synth lead in the first section of God Of War. The delay actually happens once in each corner of the room. I’m going to have to release this in Quad! Really, I’m glad you mentioned this because knowing it would play in the 5.1 Surround Digital Dome gave the project an added element of fun. (In case I didn’t mention it, I had the best time ever recording this music.) It also helps to have a mixing room now where the dimensions are large enough, the ceiling is high enough and correctly angled, such that I can monitor the lowest sub-bass frequencies.


 “A Traveler's Guide to Mars“ sounds anything but retro. How much do you keep up with recent developments on the music scene and how important was it to not just go back to the classic sound of “Io“ for the new work?
There’s really a lot of amazing synth and synth-hybrid music out there, I think especially about film music as being really cutting edge, you know, Hans Zimmer. So there’s lots of inspiration there for sound design, but I always have to tie it back to what I do. It helps a lot that computer mixing platforms have become so powerful. The quad-core Mac Pro I use can actually do things that I’ve wanted to do for years. There are the newer modeling synthesis engines, but also new ways to process the vintage synths. There are new ways to manage and even think about the pieces of sound in the mosiac.


You mentioned that a dream about Mars was seminal to the musical development of the music. Do you often rely on these kind of subconscious images and on intuition to guide you compositionally?
Absolutely, I do. I have to. I’m dealing with a creative process that I don’t understand, really, at all. I’ve had to learn to just ride it, and sometimes I can even steer it a little. I have to walk in faith because I usually only get an intuition only of what the next step should be, but really don’t know where it will all lead. That’s the hardest part, because it involves trust and I’m not real good at that.


This year you are also re-releasing a remastered celebratory version of your debut “Io.“ In which way, would you say, has the album changed? Would you say the new version is closer to what you wanted to achieve 25 years ago or more of a contemporary update?
It’s so amazing to me, so gratifying, that Io is still listened to and still has some relevance. Mostly, as my studio has evolved I’ve been able to actually hear the album better, for example in the lowest of the low frequencies, so that I could do subtle things with the overall frequency spectrum that, in effect, make it truer to my original intent. I did, in fact, remix one song which is Voyager Day 650 and this is both a contemporary update but also to rein in a synth effect that I thought was really beautiful at the time but came to feel was excessive. In fact, back in the days of vinyl records I had a few returns because this wide vibrato effect was misunderstood as a disc problem! I wonder if it would work now in the digital music age, when we’re less sensitized to that sort of thing? Something I did want to celebrate, speaking of vinyl records, was how the original LP was on clear red vinyl and how this really fit with the whole theme. In the new CD edition, if you lift up the CD, you will find a representation of the red-vinyl LP underneath the clear tray card. I wanted everyone to have one of the red-vinyl LPs.


 “Io“ and its two predecessors are still considered classics today. And yet, you have apparently opted against exclusively building an artist's career. Why?
I don’t remember ever in my whole life wanting anything other than that, and for the longest time did vigorously pursue it, yet somehow never had that real breakthrough moment into mainstream consciousness. Perhaps if I were more of a live performer I could have gotten my message out better. Maybe I’ll even still go out and perform at some point. Playing this kind of music it’s not like I’d have to look good in Spandex, you know? It also relates to my creative process, how the amount of studio hours is so excessive because I do so much layering of things. Record labels in the past, I think, were a little skittish about the economics of those things taken together because it’s better if your artist puts out an album a year and then goes out and tours. As my own label, I had to satisfy my own endless craving for more studio time and more studio capability. On the upside, I’ve always gotten to do what I wanted and what is especially fun about doing the new CD is that I feel my new studio lets me do everything I want to do technically as well. Pretty much no limitations there.


How would you describe the person behind the Ian Tescee moniker?
Kid in a candy store, a basic philosophy that anything worth doing is worth overdoing.You‘re talking about someone who can be very hard to live with, an artistic loose cannon, with the attention span of a gnat but who nonetheless insists on being painfully perfectionistic. I have released maybe half of the music I’ve recorded in my life, for every released CD there is another album of unreleased material and this has to do with the way I go about doing things—I embrace a kind of mad-scientist mentality, mixing up potions in my lab just to see will happen and the creative results can be freakish sometimes, but the ones with three eyes and four legs don’t often get to play outside. I mean, there’s got to be some structure. You need to have some idea of what you’re going to get when you put my record on, so being Ian Tescee more than anything means respecting a certain set of stylistic boundaries and adopting a particular state of mind.  


Will we have to wait another nine years for a new Ian Tescee album?
I’ll make you a deal. If you and everybody else you know will go out and buy this CD, I’ll try and get another one out in due haste.

By Tobias Fischer

Discography:
Io (1982)
Continua (1990)
Breathwork (1999)
A Traveler’s Guide to Mars (2008)

Homepage:
Ian Tescee

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