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Interview with Spheruleus

img  Tobias Fischer

What was the first time that a conceptual work or a concept album left an impact on you?
I think this would have to be the work of Richard Skelton and how much of his material is centered around landscape. The music references it well and the theme is always evoked powerfully each time that you listen. It gripped me when I first heard Landings and I started to really get something extra from those albums where the artist had devoted effort into putting together a concept. Of course, music can be a stand alone entity and be just as moving when it is left to do all the talking. But sometimes it comes across more powerfully when it is presented with great artwork, thoughtful track titles and a concept to consider whilst you listen. This is certainly something I like giving careful consideration to with my own work

What made working with a concept challenging from a compositional point of view?
I had submitted the original recordings that eventually became Voyage, as a demo to Hibernate at the end of 2009. There wasn't a concept in place with it at that time and despite the label's approval of them for a release, I was becoming increasingly unhappy with them as time went by. During that time, my laptop and external hard-drive both packed in and so I had to ask Jonathan of Hibernate to post the WAV files back to me as I intended to rework the whole thing.
It was then that I had started to get the concept together and began to restructure the album. I shortened four of the five pieces and added detail gradually over the following months. The concept came together when I felt that my work on these took on a nautical feel and this is when I really got into researching doomed sea voyages. I read books, looked at artwork, listened to soundtracks such as Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic and I even went to the London O2 Arena to see the Titanic exhibition. All of this occurred whilst I was adding that additional detail and I'd also created new pieces that fit with the concept too. In past releases, I have been known to coin the concept right at the end once the recording process had finished but with this, it was fascinating to work with sound as an artform towards portraying the theme I had presented myself. It felt at times as if I were composing a filmscore that someone had briefed me to put together. And the end product is one of the most rewarding things that I have been part of.

Bryars's The Sinking of the Titanic researches „what happens to music as it is played in water“. Was there anything you leaned from that work that turned out to be useful for your own compositions?
It was of great inspiration to me and something I listened to a lot to help me keep my focus whilst I was working on Voyage. I even considered putting together a bonus remix EP and approached Gavin Bryars about possibly remixing the piece. A little audacious really and in the end I felt that such a huge project would likely incur some financial/paperwork problems and also it might be a bigger spectacle than the album itself. So I dropped this idea. The piece remained an influenced regardless though and I drew great inspiration from the orchestration set to minimalist ideas. I didn't want to just go and copy Gavin's work however - mainly because I had plenty of ideas of my own and wanted to bring something new to 'music for sinking ships'. My work still draws from an all-acoustic sound palette, but I have chosen to further obscure it electronically and to have eight different 'acts' that differ from one another. Hopefully, my work gleans an obvious influence from Gavin's piece but brings something new and completely different to explore.

So the notion that the sea and ships can be sonically inspiring played a role in your considerations as well?
Absolutely - I wanted much of the album to be built around sounds that reference ships, boats and their struggle with the sea. For instance, I played the bass string of my guitar with a violin bow in places to bring a deep bass tone that sounded a bit like a huge steam ship sounding its horn. This is evident in the opening piece 'All For Sea' and I imagined hundreds of people gathering at the side of a huge ship, waving goodbye to their loved ones as it departs. This sound returns in track seven 'Liquid Rust' but it is intended here as more of a ghostly echo - perhaps the ships' fading memories of many a successful voyage in the years that have gone by.
There are plenty of parts that reflect the ocean in the form of sound, too - 'She Sinks' attempts to reflect the sheer power and vastness of the ocean, dwarfing and enveloping the ship as it sinks. Then 'Submerging' has an underwater feel to it.
As for field recordings, there is only one part of the album that was recorded near the sea and that is the very end of the album where the sound of waves slowly fade in. These were recorded on the north Norfolk coast at a place called Blakeney. I felt it was a bit of a cliché using a recording of waves so I didn't want to overdo it. But in this instance, I felt that they added a sense of calm to a dramatic story and show that life at sea continues regardless.

How does one match a particular visual or narrative idea with a timbre?
I guess parts of this is almost subconscious. Perhaps it's a natural reaction to how I've always perceived the sorts of sound you'd associate with this subject. I mean, it's not something that's never been done before - there are lots of documentaries and films about sinking ships, the ocean and all things nautical, so perhaps there was a vague preconception subconsciously in place as I started working on this album. The rest of it was born through experimentation and being keen to put a different slant on what I had heard before. In terms of the actual sounds, it was a case of working instrument recordings into a droning soundscape that fit the general mood of the subject. So there were a few discarded pieces ...
I guess it was made easier by the fact that as I was working on the tracks, they were untitled and I was unsure of what their order would be on the album. So I was able to sort of match the sound of a given track with a title based on the mental imagery that it evoked.

Jasper TX once said: „It's almost like scoring a film. It's all about finding sounds that convey that image, that reflect the way you want that image or story to be perceived“.
I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head. When I was working, my mind was brimming with ideas and imagery that centered around a nautical theme and I was consciously trying to get these out into the sounds. Whether it be through experimentation or otherwise, I feel that now it is complete, I have been successful in this. I think for an artist, there's nothing more frustrating than looking back at your past work and thinking that you could have done more to convey your thoughts and feelings on the subject matter.

Another key thing to keep me focused along the way and maintain the vision was photographer Richard Outram. After giving him a call to talk about the album I was working on, he agreed to take some photographs of discarded boats/ships around the Anglesey area in which he lives with a view to them being used for the album artwork. He worked in a similar experimental fashion, taking lots of shots on several different days and he'd often send them my way. His imagery was perfect for what I was trying to get out of my head into the sound and the images that make up the front and back of the CD cover were both taken by him.

How did you convey these ideas in your collaboration with Alex Tiuniaev, who features on piano on two of the pieces on Voyage?
Alex is from more of a composed music background than I and so I told him about my project with a view to him performing some piano compositions for me. I didn't want the piano to be all over the record, but I wanted it to add just a little extra drama in the right places. All I asked of him was to perform a slow piano composition by ear to the two pieces that I sent him and to send them back separately. It didn't take several attempts - it literally came together very easily after he'd heard the tracks I had in mind. This is a real testament to his ability as a composer. I wondered whether I might have had to chop and loop his recordings. But they were so good that I kept them intact.

Why precisely did you work towards a nautical theme in the first place?
I think the starting point was the need for a concept to work to when embellishing the original demo, to bring it to life. So my eyes were open to all sorts of things around that time as I was looking for inspiration. To be honest, I really haven't spent an awful lot of time at sea! I've never really been on a proper ship - only the odd boat on past holidays. Perhaps this is why I find it all so fascinating, because the sea is very much unexplored territory for me. I guess working with sound art gives  you a great opportunity to explore things that you are not too familiar with and to learn about them, too. So I noticed a documentary on television one day about old ships that had reached a state of decay which made them unseaworthy. It was fascinating and I had a rough idea that I would adopt a nautical theme from that point. As soon as I had decided this, boats, ships and the sea were cropping up all over the place. I started buying books and listening to other nautical themed music and really immersed myself in my chosen subject. This all gave me a great insight into how I'd like the new material on the album to sound.
Through eight tracks, Voyage tells a story of a doomed ship from the proud moment it leaves the harbour, to gathering storm cloud, the frantic radioing for help as it begins to sink, the actual sinking of the ship and it's submerging into water and then finally it goes into a longer section that tells the story of the decomposition it is subject to as it rots under sea.

Spending time in libraries is rather typical for a novelist. Why did you feel this was important for the music?
Most forms of ambient music evoke a sense of wonder and a racing set of inspired thoughts but for me as an artist who creates this kind of music, this thought process is pretty active even when I am not listening or recording. So once I had decided on the theme for Voyage, I was always on the look out for books, documentaries and other nautical themed artworks to help me put together my work. Ships and the sea were cropping up all over the place and even just looking at a picture would help re-affirm what I wanted to portray in my album. At work, there is a painting for sale of three ships at sea and even  seeing this everyday helped keep my focus.
In terms of research, I read a couple of books with eye-witness accounts from survivors of the Titanic to help me to understand what would be running  through the minds of those aboard a sinking ship. It was fascinating to hear from a handful of people who survived amongst such a huge and devastating natural cull and it helped me establish the angle I wanted to go along when assembling this 'soundtrack'.
You may notice that it doesn't quite exude the sheer power that you might expect with an album about the ocean, great big ships and destruction. Instead, it has a distant sadness to it and the actual sinking process is depicted pretty gracefully in terms of sound. Whenever I work, I often think about the grand scheme of things and themes of insignificance often creep into my projects. So in this case I wanted to create a pretty dramatic and ambitious prospect which in contrast, is presented in a more gentle way than might have been expected. I have afforded the decompositional stage of the ship and its 'afterlife' almost 25 minutes which in itself, pales the actual sinking into insignificance. This is something that I found particularly interesting - the rotting of disused ships that often get washed up to shore. In fact, there were times when I became more interested in this than any other aspect of a voyage, especially when I started to think how it played hand-in- hand with my album from last year, Decompose.

You mentioned you visited the Titanic exhibition. What was that like?

I was thinking about the Titanic and how despite it being around a hundred years old and the parts of the ship fragmented, it is still actually in existence and if preserved properly it will do so for a long time. When I was at the Titanic exhibition, I was actually able to touch a small piece of the hull! It's fascinating to think of the gigantic ocean and all the debris that must be floating around it. It also fascinates me that large parts or even an almost intact boat can be washed up to shore. There are boat graveyards in some parts of the world and that is something else of great interest to me. Decay, decomposition and the passing of time are some of the things I come back to most when thinking about themes and concepts for my work and so naturally those aspects of a failed sea voyage interested me most. I tend to tell this story more from the ship's perspective as a result ...

What did it feel like when you touched the hull of the Titanic?

Throughout the tour of the exhibition, it built a strong sense of the grandeur and elaborate attention to detail that was given to the ship. It was a huge distraction and there were lots of mock examples and reconstructions of what it would have been like to be on board. The hull section was towards the end of the tour and it just kind of brought me back to earth as I started to think again about the ship itself and its fate. It was a strange feeling to literally touch part of one of the most memorable doomed ships in history. The hull piece itself was completely black and looked like it had been burnt. It looked like a piece of wood and you wouldn't really know what it was unless you were told. Which again ties in with my continued interest in the rotting and disintegration process. It is interesting to think that parts of that same hull have since gone unpreserved and have fragmented somewhere into nothing. Disappearing into the silt that lines the ocean.

Tell me about this fascination for „all things old and rustic“.
I'm not sure exactly where it has sprung from, but I've always been fascinated with the old and rustic. Perhaps it's been my surroundings and love of the countryside that has produced this interest. It often spills into my work, with the likes of Forgotten Outland and most recently a collaboration with my brother Stuart as Paper Relics. Our album was released on Time Released Sound and it absolutely epitomises this fascination with a rustic lifestyle. I've a real interest in the effects of age and decay too, and the way things appear after several years have elapsed. My album Decompose explored this in detail and the tracks portray the breaking down of matter over time and how the disintegrated fragments reshape to become something else; a kind of natural recycling. So this certainly helped spark the ideas that lie within Voyage and it's perhaps the biggest single influence on the long section at the end that deals with the ship's 'afterlife'.

In which way do your „surroundings and love of the countryside“ bring you in closer contact with these ideas?
Over the years I have learnt to make the most of the relatively flat countryside in the area of Lincolnshire I live. There is a bit of a farming tradition in my family and as I was growing up I wanted to be a farmer for some reason. This has since passed but I'm still interested in the rural lifestyle and perhaps this is the very root of my love for the countryside. Obviously, the countryside was not really of much use in terms of direct inspiration for Voyage. The land had no real part in the album which was really quite a change for me! The fresh air and outdoors however were still of use - I always find that a walk or cycle listening to the progress I have made with my work is the best way for me to work out what needs to be changed or improved.

In which way is there beauty in these processes or the results of these processes?
A lot of people were really quite surprised by Decompose as the sound was a lot less gloomy than the title suggests. I wanted the album to shed light on the decomposition process – after all, it is natural and pretty much everything is ephemeral if you think about it. So I guess the album is portrayed in a kind of existential light, in a celebratory way. I believe even in great destruction, there lies an intriguing but intangible beauty. Hopefully this comes across in Voyage; it's inevitably about loss as a whole, but it takes the homage and tribute itself for the real beauty of it to be realised. The album can also be taken metaphorically in this sense ...

To you, there is comfort in the thought, that, as part of this decomposition process, nothing truly gets lost, but merely changes its shape or gets transformed into something different?
Absolutely, and this pretty much formed the back-bone of the Decompose
album and influences a lot of my work. This is what I was referring to when I said I consider the bigger picture when looking into a concept. Whatever the sad circumstances that surround the demise of a building, object (or ship in  this instance), long-term its parts will disintegrate down into the earth and take shape as something else. It may take centuries or even thousands of years for this to fully take place, but it happens and all that documents its existence is our own eye-witness accounts.
Perhaps this album will be picked up by somebody in fifty years time and they might think it was actually about a specific ship or boat? A myth could be born and the story could get twisted ...

A novelist creates his own world – in a way his characters become real. Through immersing yourself in the storyline of Voyage, did you feel a similar sense of entanglement? A sense of guilt that you'd allowed the ship to sink?
I certainly did and this really helped when trying to think of all the track titles as I could imagine how it would feel to be involved with the voyage based on what the sounds have to say. I tried to put myself in the position of the different types of people involved throughout, from the family members in the opening track to the captain frantically radio-ing back to land in 'Losing Transmission'.

Of course, I could have given a different ending to the album-perhaps a dramatic tale of survival for instance. Ultimately however, the ship and crew's fate were in my hands and given a strong interest in the decomposition process shown in previous albums, it could never bode well for them ...
I don't feel any guilt but there is an obvious sadness that appears half way through the album which is difficult to ignore. Having mentally put myself in the place of someone who is on board a sinking ship, it's difficult not to understand the fear, terror and sadness that they will have done. But as I've said before, the album focuses more on the ship's perspective. Perhaps having read eye witness accounts and books, I couldn't bring myself to fully concentrate on the human aspects. It would have been pretty terrible to imagine and actively encourage others to do so through an album. I didn't want to go down the shock route that the documentaries and films trace. The more I looked into this, the more I wanted it to be about the ship and in that sense, I kind of personified it as something discarded that people have forgotten about amongst a human tragedy.

By Tobias Fischer

Spheruleus Discography:

A Vision Obscured (Earth Mantra)    2009   
Tales From The Labyrinth (Test Tube) 2009   
The Disguised Familiar (Earth Mantra) 2009   
Frozen Quarters (Under The Spire) 2010   
Decompose (Audio Gourmet) 2010   
Voyage (Hibernate) 2011

Recommended Spheruleus Interviews & Articles on the Web:
Spheruleus mix and interview for Fluid Radio, discussing some of his favourite releases.


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