Tim Hecker interview
I was invited to Tim Hecker's hotel to carry out the interview with him around his forthcoming album Love Streams, and I had expected it to take place in a fairly ordinary room. However, we met and discussed the album in the hotel's grand room that was formerly Bethnal Green's Council Chambers.
The leather-plad seats in rows and the councillors' plush chairs on the raised podium are still fully intact. We sat up in the councillors chairs, at the front of the hall, and despite it being empty it still felt as if we were being watched by an audience of former important inhabitants. Hecker looked completely at home in the space, his tall and imposing frame not a bit dwarfed by its surroundings. During the interview he balled himself up irreverently on the councilman's chair, his feet up on the desk, like a curled-up spring, ready to uncoil and lash outward at any moment.
Through the interview he stayed engaged, thoughtful and willing to challenge on any point he thought needed further investigation. The resulting conversation is amorphous and wide-ranging, just like Hecker's music. Hearing him speak gives you some insight into the way his mind works - how he creates his idiosyncratically rich and unpredictable pieces. However, often there are times where you feel he wants to express more, but that is a threshold he only breaches in his deeply personal music.
This interview is a starting point, but to really get inside the mind of this uniquely modern composer, fully immersing yourself in his music is the only way - and he would be the first to assert this.
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Is this the longest time you've spent working on an album? It seems like all of the last two years 2014 and 2015 you were at it...
I didn't work on it the whole time. It was kind of like a segue between records. I've done ones where it's been like 3 years, this was like two and a half years. I don't know, I think less is more in general, I'm not one to put out a record every year.
It seems like a definite change from when you did Ravedeath, 1972, which was mostly recorded in one day, and then you worked on it further outside that day, but that was relatively quick compared to this.
Yeah that was a bit of an exaggeration that the recording session took one day. I had worked on pieces before and prepared stuff and wrote these sketches and it was all executed at once. There was a lot of thought before and after. The after was pretty quick, it was just like a lot of splicing and mixing - like a year just splicing things together.
You went back to Iceland once again for Love Streams, can you tell me about when you first went there and what attracts you back there.
I was first invited there by Ben Frost, who was doing something for Bedroom Community and Iceland Airwaves. I started working on music there and I came back, and I've gone back there quite a few times and we did it again this time. I used the studio to record the choir and the rest of it I recorded in Montreal and in Los Angeles, where I finished it.
Is it just the studio you go to Iceland for or are there other reasons you like to go there?
It's just like a great place to go away, to remember that you're there to work on music. It's a place that fosters musical expression in some weird way. I think per capita it has the most musicians of any country in the world. It's not a huge population, Iceland's like, I don't know 300,000 people, but their musical and cultural contributions to the world dwarfs that per capita. It's absurd actually. So it's kind of amazing for that, it's a place where it feels like it just comes out of the water. And I just like going there.
Considering how many musicians come from there, why do you think you don't hear of more artists touring there?
It's the logistics. It's a small country. It's expensive to fly there. It's not easy. When touring, it's not an obvious stop.
Let's go back to the initial ideas, the germ of this album; did that come from the 15th century choral music?
Yeah, I started by just riffing off certain late 15th century composers - I riffed off a lot of their compositions. I started working on that plastic material and made these pieces that used a lot of clean '90s synthesizers and reverbs, and used that as a starting point. I gave that to Jóhann Jóhannsson, who wrote a few choral arrangements that we took that back to the studio, and I tracked over and with and kind of interrogated and fucked with that quite a bit. I went back to it and finished it in LA over a period of about 6 months. Just like pushing it farther and treating a lot of those sessions, and it became a record.
This is the first time you've used live vocals on a record, what was the inspiration?
It was just one thing I had always wanted to mess with. I was talking to Ben Frost at one point and we had agreed to try that out. I had tried using synthetic voices, like choral synthesizers and stuff, it just sounded kind of crap. I wanted to just work with the bare voice as like a plastic material, and see what happens. It was like an experiment that ended up becoming a record, more or less.
You ended up working with the Icelandic Choir Ensemble, how did you come into contact with them?
That was a recommendation from Jóhann, who works with them quite a bit. It's a group of musicians and singers that he had recommended and it was organised by this guy Kippy, who I've met before and he's in the Icelandic, Rejkjavik music scene. It was quite easy.
Jóhann wrote the choral parts, how did it work when it got to the studio?
I think we used about two of his arrangements in the end. Some of them were improvisations that we just kind of directed the singers to try things, like 'what if you're Chewbacca seeing tears in a certain way?' or like, you know, just trying a little bit of different vocal techniques. Then just overdubbing and seeing where it would go.
I've seen your collaborator Kara-Lis Coverdale talking about the instructions you give when you're trying to inspire her, like 'German dictator' or things like that - do these things just come in the moment?
Yeah. I think sheet music and things like that have a place, but I feel like there's so much more fun ways to structure ways for musicians to perform and improvise and to direct them. Obviously it's more of a fun play kind of zone at that point.
From the title, Love Streams, and the pink cover - which is the first non-monochromatic cover of yours for a while - people might think it's a warmer album than previous, which it is to an extent. But the inspiration behind the cover and a couple of the tracks on the album was this stage collapse in China, what was it about that that appealed to you?
There's this phenomena that happened, that I discovered when researching that in China last year; there were numerous celebrations commemorating the Chinese people and songs for the dream of Chinese society, and on at least three occasions there's documentation of the choir's stage setup collapsing completely and people falling ten feet below the stage. Apparently in the one that I used for the cover nobody died or was seriously injured. But it became this potent metaphor for something that... not that I was trying to get at, but just an accompaniment to the record. It's just a feeling I kind of went with.
Did you find yourself watching that video quite a lot?
Yeah! I would loop it, it's on my phone, I can find it maybe for you [pulls out phone and starts searching for video] but yeah it's definitely something that was like a guiding thing at the end of the record. [Stage collapse video begins to play, we watch] So a freeze frame of that became the record cover.
When did you know you were going to use that as the cover?
In September of last year I had a moment where I was like 'that's it!' And I don't know... previously I did a cover with Ravedeath that had similar kind of melancholy of music. I would say that there's a metaphor there that's potent on a lot of levels, and I don't want to spell those out for you because they're personal and I would have to think about it for 3 hours to express what it means. But it's real and it feels like something [slaps phone on knee]. Making music, it's like being a music journalist or something - it's a challenge in this day and age. It's not like it was 20 or 30 years ago, the terrain is a new one and the rules are totally different.
You'd much rather let the music speak for itself.
Yes. These come from deeply personal, enigmatic assumptions and hunches but I don't want to spell that out in a literal way, because what does that mean? I don't know, I just have a feeling and I go with that, and if someone else takes it a different way, great!
How much did you record that didn't make the final cut? Usually you end up with a lot of tracks that don't make it.
Yeah, I have a hard drive that's like a crypt, like a cemetery of bogus material - lots of stuff. That's like the editing process, it's a self-filtration, it's just being honest with yourself and taking time. That's why I don't release things every 8 months. I need time to step away and encounter it again like a stranger, and that helps. It helps discern what's special and what's just taking a third lap of the same old horse.
So you don't feel any remorse about the things that don't make it?
It's ok, it's part of any studio scrap yard. It's cuttings, metal cuttings from some sculpture that weren't used.
Do you think they'll ever see the light of day or are they officially dead?
I would never say that, "officially dead" - maybe they were never alive!
But when you come to start a new album you're going to start fresh, right?
Yeah I rarely go back. I usually start with a blank slate every time. I don't try to glean things out from past recording times. They have different uses, but not really.
The structure of the album... well, is there a structure? I'll tell you what I think...
Yeah, you tell me what you think! Because you're the journalist, that's traditionally your function. Sometimes I get asked to tell them what the record sounds like or means, and I'm like 'dude, that's your job!' I'm curious because I don't encounter many people who'll give me their thoughts.
Well, as with all your albums at first it seems kind of impenetrable but as you listen more it's actually not impenetrable it's engulfing - the opposite! You introduce the album quite subtly and warmly and then we get to 'Live Leak Instrumental' which - was that recorded live? It has more of a live sound...
That's just a weird studio session, something that I jammed through. It was a jam of other things that kind of got crunched. It's like a loose thing; it's a hybrid of a bunch of things that got slammed together.
Then 'Violet Monumental I' and 'II' are the mid-album centrepieces. You have woodwinds on 'Violet Monumental II' - the only track that has them - what made you decide this piece needs them?
That piece for me felt like it had a place... and it was just making sense of that. I like that it's inconsistent instrumentation. I generally use a pretty defined pallet; I don't go all over. This is not EDM buzz tooth saw synths shredding and then a flute jam - a mellotron flute! [laughs] There's no symphonic aspects, like some Skrillex bassline counterpart. It's pretty narrow. I have a set of tools and I exploit them, but why not use woodwind in a surprising way? Just having things that are anomalous and non-linear, I'm all for that in a big way.
Then we have 'Up Red Bull Creek', I googled Red Bull Creek and it is not a real place, so is that related to the drink? Because it seems like the opposite of a jacked up sound, it's a relaxed track...
I don't know it just came in a vision... It's a relaxed track for sure.
As the album goes on the voices start to come into a lot more towards the end. There are some cut up voices earlier on in 'Music of the Air', but later on the voices start to make themselves more known, there are more of them...
It's an anticipation and a pacing of how things come in and out. You don't want to wear out a technique by plotting it 50 times right off the bat in the beginning. This the kind of the way the lace was weaved, the way the fabric was supposed to sit in the windowsill, and just the way I felt right, in terms of pacing and sequencing and engagement. A lot of work really happens with finishing a record as a whole. I write a lot of pieces, and it's like a puzzle around 'what is this thing?' I kind of defend long-form work in an era where people don't care about it as much - like decidedly so - so I still do that. But I still want a 3-minute vignette or motif to hold up in isolation. Hopefully it can still have effect or impact in isolation. I don't care if it fits into a DJ set, I don't design it for that, I just hope it's a discrete piece of weird music.
Do the titles come last?
Titling is towards the end. It's one of the hardest parts, you just sit there and kind of ouija board channel for ideas. I was in Paris and I just went to a cafe and had a beer and did this 8 page poetic riff of things in haiku fashion, partly related to what I was feeling about making music, part of what this music felt like, part of what it felt like being alive that day. You know, just a clump of words came together and one of the common things was streams and thinking about this digital pipeline service. Thinking about it as looking out the windows at people on their computers, probably on pornographic websites and stock market websites. All those pipelines of data and a bunch of other things...
Did the title 'Castrati Stack' come out of that? Because that's a provocative title!
[laughs] It's like a deep sense of humour that doesn't carry through. I was laughing when I wrote that.
And the video?
That was not humour so much, that was like... it wasn't even a video! The idea was to have something that's barely discernible as being something. Instead of a white screen stream of a song, we thought we'd have something that's barely there. My friend was into the Chinese president's military parade and the aesthetic of that. We turned it into something like Gerhard Richter October-era paintings and that was it!
That also plays into the Chinese theme that you've got running through this...
I vaguely am obsessed with Chinese society in some ways, but I did not want to make a Chinese record that's about tourism or exoticism or anything. It's about engaging it in another way.
I'm sure you've talked about the "liturgical aesthetics after Yeezus" quote from the press release for this album with everyone...
No, let's talk about it! That was a joke that again does not get translated and becomes literalist. My whole point was like, how can you make music that invokes - like I do Pagan takes on burned out Christian tropes - but how can you even talk about a religious approach in the age of auto tune? In the age of the industrial brutilisation of the voice? I used Yeezus as an example, but it has nothing to do with that. It was just a joke that gets Buzzfeed clickbaited and associated and over-associated and before you know it it's a record about Kanye West. It's so funny, it's another form of stream nihilism.
Do you read people's writing about your music?
I try not to. I really try to cultivate an unknowing state, because it doesn't help you...
No, but it does provoke writers to push themselves, I find. They write much more cerebrally when talking about music like yours than with other stuff.
I guess that's good. It is good! Because top-level criticism is something that should stay strong.
Last question, I noticed that on the collaboration with Daniel Lopatin [Oneohtrix Point Never] you named a track for Thomas Mann. Are you a big fan?
'Vaccination (for Thomas Mann)', it was about Death in Venice, syphilis, I can't remember - it was some joke we had. We're both pretty humour-laden guys and our studio session was full of laughs, so I can't remember exactly how that title came about.
Did you read much around this album?
This album, not so much. I'm rekindling my love of literature right now. I'm reading strange publications, small press things like that.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 9th March 2016.