RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Interview with Jeff Stonehouse

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, sound artist and deep ambient master Jeff Stonehouse explains how his ambition for originality is engrained in his ambition not to repeat himself.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

It wasn’t until the early 80’s that I realised that I might be able to contribute something to the music scene at the time. Inspired by bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten, myself and a few friends began experimenting with tape loops, shortwave radio sounds and rhythms beaten out on the burnt out shells of stolen cars that we found in the forest near to where we lived. We self-released a couple of cassettes, which sank like stones, never to be seen or heard again, and played a few improvised gigs in unlikely places like abandoned houses and forest clearings. And then it just kind of fizzled out after two or three years. I went on to play in a Psych band, then progressed into trance/techno and ambient dub before losing interest in the music scene in the early 90’s.
 Nearly 20 years later, one of my original collaborators contacted me and we decided to try and rekindle the excitement of our early experiments, but although it didn’t work out too well, it inspired me to carry on making music. I was introduced to Kate Tustain by a mutual friend, and Listening Mirror was born.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
I’ve always been excited by new and challenging sounds, and as a child in the 60’s and 70’s I was surrounded by all kinds of innovative new music, from Krautrock to Punk Rock, Prog Rock to Kraftwerk. It was an amazing time for experimentation with new technologies and ideas, and as a child and then a teenager, I just soaked it all up. The bands and artists that I found particularly inspiring in those days were Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Greenslade, Yes, David Bowie, DEVO, Klaus Schulze, Scientist and Brian Eno. They were all doing things that I had never heard before and I was entranced.

What's your own definition of originality?
To me, originality comes from the essence of the artist. If the music reflects the true heart and soul of the artist, no matter how it is produced, then it is original because the music is unique to that artist. The style, genre and instrumentation of the work has no bearing on it’s originality. It is the emotional content that is important.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Originality has become more important to me as time has worn on, and this is because, as artists, musicians have a need to keep pushing at the boundaries of their craft. Sometimes this leads to long periods of what seems like, to the audience, musical inactivity, but is in fact a period of trial and error, failed experiments and tiny victories that eventually lead to a new sound or a complete change in direction.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
It’s always great to discover an artist that stands out within whatever genre they fall into. I don't really like the idea of trying to fit art into genres though. It is something that is done more by the listener than the artist, and it’s unfortunate that sometimes artists fall out of favour if it’s felt that they have crossed over into another genre.

Most artists just do what they do, and have no interest in which box they fit into. When Kate and I finished our first track ‘Wet Roads‘, I was convinced that we had stumbled upon a whole new form of music. It was only when we were trying to get our material released that I found out that there were hundreds of other people making similar sounds to ours. I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed! Luckily for us there was something about our music that stood out, and we were lucky enough to find a label willing to have faith in us. 
I am always on the lookout for music that inspires an emotional reaction in me, not necessarily lyrically, although that has become more important to me in recent months, but through its frequencies and cadences, melodies and atmospheres. 

Recently I have discovered, and in some cases been privileged enough to work with, some amazing female artists working within the experimental/ambient/drone scene, and I’m hoping that I will discover more. It seems to be a very male dominated scene, which is a shame, because the few female artists that I have discovered are producing some of the most original and beautiful music I have ever heard.
 Sally Ann Mcintyre from the South Island of New Zealand does some amazing work with field recordings of native bird species, shortwave radio and electronics. Kate Carr, currently based in Count Kerry, Ireland is also making some beautiful music with field recordings and electronics, Sanja Ivkov, my latest collaborator, who hails from Sombor in Serbia, and also writes as Lebdi, and performs as part of the amazing Mesta, is also making some lovely music, as well as being a very talented tattoo artist!
 Last but by no means least, the amazingly talented Alicia Merz from Waikato in New Zealand, who writes and performs as Birds of Passage. It has been such a privilege to have been able to work with her over the last couple of years, both as a guest vocalist on a few Listening Mirror tracks, and as part of our project Snoqualmie Falls. Alicia writes some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful music that I have ever heard.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.

The challenge is always trying to convert the sounds in your head into reality. I have found that I come up with my more interesting ideas, when I just let go, or try to write under difficult circumstances that don’t let me concentrate too hard on what I’m doing, like sleep deprivation. I also like to introduce an element of chaos into my work. This can take the form of allowing my guitar to be played by ribbons attached to an oscillating fan, or by leaving a guitar plugged in to every effects pedal I own for on hour or two, then using the ensuing treated earth hum as the basis of a new piece, or hanging a microphone out of a bedroom window all night and using the sounds recorded while I sleep (this has been particularly rewarding – I seem to live in a neighbourhood that gets quite weird after dark).

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?

To be honest, I don’t think too hard about the creative process, I assemble sounds. If they work I use them, if not they are discarded. I know it sounds a bit pretentious, but my writing style is very ‘stream of consciousness‘. Sometimes it pours from me, and sometimes, if I find I’m trying too hard, I’ll just stop and leave everything alone for a week or more, until my head is filled with sound again.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
That’s a difficult one. In my opinion, copyright, especially where music is concerned, is more of a ‘gentleman’s agreement‘ than a legally binding concept these days, and has been gradually eroded since the advent of affordable sampling technology back in the 80s.

Can an artist claim an idea as their own? I guess so, but there will always be someone, somewhere, who will claim that the idea was originally theirs. It really depends on the artist’s interpretation of the idea or concept that make it original or otherwise. Likewise with compositions. We cannot be aware of every single piece of music that has ever been written, therefore we can never be sure that a certain sequence of notes or combination of instruments has never been used before. All we can do is write from our hearts without worrying about things we have no control over.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
The ability to be ‘original‘ has never been greater than it is now. The advances in digital technology give musicians an almost infinite pallette of sounds to work with.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I’d guess that the affordability of digital recording equipment that allows people like myself to work in isolation if I need to, and the increased reliability of the internet that allows for collaborations to take place no matter where on the planet the musicians might be, are the most important developments that I can think of.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
Ffor an artist I don’t think there are any obstacles – art will always find a way. Artists are only vessels for their chosen medium, ideas flow in through the senses, and eventually the vessel overflows.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Not really, I have managed to release everything I have wanted to release, thanks to the kindness, faith and generosity of those intrepid people that run small independent labels like Hibernate, Twice Removed, Cooper Cult, Somehow, Dronarivm, Heat Death, Bathetic, and Entropy.
 The only limitation has been in not always being able to release my music in the format I would have preferred. When I’m working on a piece of music I envisage it being listened to on certain formats, for the idiosyncracies of sound related to those formats. For example, the ideal format for my album The Heart of The Sky would have been vinyl, because any slight surface noises would have just added to the dryness of the sound, and the warmth of sound would have enhanced the Mexican landscape I was trying to conjure.
 The Passing of Chavela however, works very well on CD because of the subtle sounds and frequencies used, which could have been diminished on a vinyl or tape release.
 So, I guess the main reasons for not being able to release on the format of my choosing is financial.

Jeff Stonehouse interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Jeff Stonehouse on Bandcamp