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Interview with Peter James on his album landfall and other works
Jeffrey Ericson Allen (Chronotope Project)
So Peter, congratulations on your latest ambient music release, landfall, which I've been thoroughly enjoying. I'd like to talk about it in detail later, but just to introduce yourself, could you describe your musical roots? What's your history as a musician and as a composer, and what brought you to the ambient style?
well.. it's not such a simple question to answer, but it began for me way way back in 1981/82, when some friends and i started making music with found objects, as we had no real instruments. that's the roots of it all. i then acquired the trusty old Teac A-108 2 track cassette machine, an electric guitar, and a Moog Prodigy. i found by bouncing down onto a mono cassette machine, and then back into the A-108, i could achieve some interesting sounds, especially with the machines never being in sync. i digress.. in 1983 we went to a pretty decent studio, and i had a bit of an epiphany, and knew then that that was what i had to do - become a sound recording engineer. some 4 years later, that dream became my reality.
i had always created instrumental music, from the very beginning. i didn't hear any "ambient" music until 1986/7, and even then it was only Music For Airports, and some Tim Story (3 Feet From The Moon, if i remember correctly). but i'd long been a fan of Cabaret Voltaire, the artists on Factory Records, here in the U.K, Fad Gadget/Frank Tovey, The Fall, and so on, so i had a good mix of things i listened to. someone lent me a copy of The Pearl in maybe 1992 or 3, i think that's when i realised it. to this day it is the only ambient music i can go back to again and again. it has never dated, and i think this is due to the fact they they used real and synthesised sounds in tandem, as compliments, in perfect balance. the first "organic" blend of both, in my opinion. plus, to me, all the tracks on that album are "songs", to me. vignettes. it's this, i think, that keeps the whole album fresh. saying that, i try (very very hard) not to be influenced by anyone, or any artist. if i do sound like anyone else, it's by accident, not by design, what with the notion of the collective unconscious, and all that. so no, i'm not influenced by, or trying to sound like, anyone else at all. i just do what i do, and primarily i write for me. if anyone else should like what i do, that's fantastic, but it's not my right to be liked, or listened to. it is, what it is, if a tree should fall, etc., etc..
all in all, i'm a sound engineer, who likes to play with sound, and make things sound like something they are not. even on my field recording works, there are some elements i like to use that it would be hard for me to clearly explain as to just what some of those sounds were derived from. but the main thing for me, is to try not to repeat myself. to keep attempting to move forwards. and to keep recording and making sounds that are unique to me.
Your background as a recording engineer certainly helps explain the richness and subtlety of your recordings. It also explains why Brian Eno--the consummate producer and engineer--would figure so prominently among your musical luminaries. I agree that "influences" are better kept at a distance and take place on a subconscious level, but I wonder if you would mind describing your musical style in terms that might help listeners relate it to other music they may know?
this is a question that i'm afraid i cannot answer easily either, Jeffrey, as i do not listen to ambient music at all for recreational or enjoyment purposes, so i have no idea who i could refer to. but if i was to describe it in isolation, then i'd say that mostly, well, at least, recently, i've been focussing on an even more minimalistic style, utilising field recordings, tibetan and crystal bowls, and stripped down simple drones as underpinning, and just letting the natural sounds speak for themselve's. but i try not to repeat myself, as i say, so landfall, for instance, is mostly drones and other sounds created using the bass guitar as the main sound source. i've started referring to my newer pieces as "situationist", rather than simply ambient. all of my album's are cut from different cloth, even if i am the pattern-maker, so they are all very different to each other, which, as i say, makes it very difficult to simply say "i write ambient drone music", or "i do field recording based works." both are true, but both are misleading.
I was just listening to your limited release, there is only now, and I was struck by how different this music is from landfall. I especially enjoy the way you have taken, in the first track, very small melodic cells, repeated them, then elaborated on them in subsequent statements. It's a very effective treatment. It seems to call forth a raga, as the vocalist demonstrates in the second half of the piece. There she sings a very narrow major third and some other modified intervals, unexpected to me at first, but then quite beautiful as one settles into it. Let me ask you--did you and she agree on that initially, or did it just happen? Do you have an interest in non-equal temperament, and if so, how does it play out in your music? And if this isn't too much for one question, have you studied or absorbed classical Indian music, or is this just another unconscious influence that's crept into your sound?
i do not like to stand still with my music, if i can at all help it. i find it too self-limiting to simply (and i use that word advisedly) stick to one way, or within one style. i have always liked to explore new ways of working, and of creating new sounds, and it is the sounds themselve's that tend to drive a piece, or an album. in that regard, all of my album's sound different, as, mostly, all the sounds for each project are different. i have my "stock" sounds, yes, but that is all they are, sounds to set a tone, not a complete set of works. plus, i would hope, that as i grow older, my work will evolve with me, as i, hopefully, gain more understanding about life, ergo, my music.
i had the opportunity a few years ago to see a live demonstration of the use of traditional Tibetan instruments for both meditation(s), and other cultural practices, by the monks of the Tashi Lunpho Monastary. i know that this influenced me, and, once i gained some further understanding, i allowed it to do so quite a lot, even if sometimes it is on a very subtle level. but i learned a lot about "why" certain sounds are used, or certain instruments, and it was the "why" and "the way" of it that i came away most excited about.
i'm not a musician, in the strictest sense of the word, and if there should be any kind or sort of "arcane" tunings or intervals happening, it is purely by accident, and not by design. it is always, simply and purely, about how the sound "feels" and resonates with me, nothing else. of course i am influenced by the world around me, and of course i have absorbed a lot over the years, but in reality, no, i am not consciously influenced by any one style, even if i Am influenced by a "way". in that sense, then, drone based, or, indeed, meditational, music has been around for centuries, so if there is a similarity, on some, even if unconscious, levels, it is hardly a surprise. but it is interesting to me, that the only sounds that have Never worked for me, or seemed to fit within my work, are those traditional Classical Indian sounds and instruments.
I really appreciate your attitude toward music, not being "stuck" in a single style, but just working with what you most love at each moment in time. Still, you produce albums with complete self-consistency and integrity. It is easy, as a listener, to completely sink into landfall, memento or there is only now, to accept each as its own "sound world," and not to reference or compare it with the others. What do you think accounts for your ability as a musical "shapeshifter?"
thankyou, Jeffrey, for what you say about those albums. i'm incredibly glad that you feel each has it's own distinct place, even if their execution, and reasoning, comes from the same place.
as for me being a musical "shapeshifter"? well, i'll gladly accept that handle. i just think that, as we get older, hopefully we learn more about who we are, about the world around us, and, perhaps, understand also that we are only limited by our own imagination(s). with modern technology, nowadays, if you can think it, conceive it, you can do it. i just choose to do it a different way. but it is my imagination that makes me not stand still. "what if i try that, what will that sound like" or "what if i record that, how can i use that?". so i try it. whatever it may be, and see what happens. or i may just get inspired by an idea, or a notion. or a thing. or an event. or a storm, or the sunshine, or a place, and so on. it seems to me it would be impossible to keep doing the same kind of work, when there is so much to inspire, so much to make you feel, so much to marvel and wonder at, so much to affect you. i know i'm repeating myself here, but i really am not "inspired" by music, but i am Inspired by our world: be it good, bad, or incredible, around us. of course there are some pieces of mine that are cut from the same cloth, as it were, but mostly they are one-off tracks, nowadays, and done, as i have already said, purely because i've thought, at the time, that they sounded pretty cool, to me, and resonated with me.
i am certain that i'll keep exploring the more meditative side of my music, but i'm also as sure that i'll keep exploring the more noisy side, too. and as i've alluded to it already, i should say now that my next two album's will not be "ambient", but vocal and real instrument led, even if they are also being made from my backdrops, drones, and sounds, too. so yes. i'll continue along my shapeshifting path, as it is the only path i know how to tread, even if it makes me hard to categorise, or pin down as an artist, i'd have it no other way.
I understand that you live in Cumbria, Northwest England. I've never traveled there, but I have seem some images of the countryside and find it astoundingly beautiful: mountains and lakes, rolling hills and pastures. And I can't help but think that much of the spaciousness and contour of your music must be inspired by this natural beauty. In addition, in some of your music, you make ample use of field recordings, many with natural sources. Could you talk a bit about any relationship you see between your surroundings and the music you create, and in particular, your use of field recordings as elements of ambient music?
of course, i do not think it would be possible Not to be influenced by the countryside in Cumbria. even if i do live in a small town, i have spent countless hours in and amongst it, and on the fell tops. it has had a huge impact on my music, and my life, yes, and i am aware how lucky i have been to have been able to spend the last 12 years here. i think what i have learned the most from it, is that there is great movement in stillness. to watch the shadow of a cloud ripple across the side of a sunlit mountain, sometimes very slowly, sometimes very quickly, and sometimes, just sitting there, moving almost imperceptibly. or indeed to sit and stare at the unfolding landscape, in snow and ice, wind and rain, or sunshine. it is ever changing, ever evolving. ever moving. there is, however, nothing like sitting 2,500 or more feet up a mountain in below freezing temperatures, with everything around you covered in a blanket of snow, under brilliant sunshine. the sense of all encompassing peace inspires, and moves me, like nothing else ever has. i always feel totally, and completely, alive at those times. i try to take as much away with me as i can. i hope that my use of field recordings in my work shows a reflection of that, too. especially in the way that i mostly like to make them the dominant factor in a piece. i've always used a blend of the synthetic and the real in my music, and using field recordings is just an extension of that, too, except i make nature the main instrument, and the man-made sounds as the undercurrent, the underpinning, if you like. the carpet on which the real sounds float. who needs to add a melody when nature plays, and sings, the best ones.
Living in Cumbria must turn all of you into poets! Beautifully expressed, Peter. And I think that anyone who listens to your music, even casually, cannot help but discover that lyricism in your sound. Your relationship to nature is very telling; I'm sure that your listeners are as curious as I am about the other particulars of your life. Can you give us a bit of a biographical sketch and some salient facts about your present life?
thankyou, Jeffrey, but i'm not so sure about the poet bit, but it's hard not wax lyrical about such natural beauty.
i'm not so sure that my life as is, is all that interesting. i just try to do what i do as best as i can, and adhere to the things that i believe in strongly as best as i can, too. again, my past isn't all that relevant anymore, either, as it's long gone (even yesterday), even if it did get me to this point in time now. i did work in a small 8 track studio for about three years, many many years ago, and i have worked with a fair few people over the last few years, but mainly only for fun, or to help someone record some of their songs. i tend only to work with people i feel some kind of connection with nowadays, and they are Always singer/songwriters, not electronic musicians. until i moved to here, some twelve or so years ago, i had moved around quite a lot, too. home is wherever i happen to be at the time. as i said earlier, i just try to keep moving forwards, to keep learning, and trying to understand more about the world, what i do, how i do it. everything is constantly a work in progress, and that includes me, too.
i still work mostly in the analogue domain, and my studio is all outboard equipment, no plug-ins, or soft-synths etc. i just use the mac as a multi-track recorder, although that's rare, as 90% of my work is done using two EMU hardware samplers (both with 8 outputs), all triggered over midi, and mixed down live, and in real time. i create maybe 80% - 90% of the sounds i use myself, by various methods, and 60% of those are still created using just a bass guitar, and various other implements. i can record say 25 minutes of bass guitar work in one sitting, in real time, yet i may only get one or two "useful" minutes of audio, and then i may only get one or two sounds from those two minutes. but to me, that's still more than worth it, to have created something brand new, and unique to me. sometimes the ratio is higher, but it's a good example of the process i mostly use. i don't own a synthesiser, even if i have samples of them, i rarely, if ever, use them, and if i do, i will re-record and re-process them, re-layer them, and turn them into something else. this is where the time is, the work is, in what i do, this is the stuff that interests me the most, making the sounds themselve's, and if i get it right, it makes putting the music together a whole lot easier.
So Peter, what's next on your creative horizon? What new ideas or projects are you exploring?
i have at least three, perhaps four, projects on the horizon. two are currently on-going. the first is an album with Annemarie Borg, which has taken a very long time to even get to the point we are now with it, which is "almost" done. other commitments and personal/solo projects have always taken a precedent for the both of us, but it is nearly done. we are hoping it will be released either at the very end of 2012, or very early 2013. it's a song based album, too, even if i have done 95% of the music (in my own style), i think all but one track has vocals by Annemarie, and she has played on a couple of tracks, as well as written all the lyrics, too. it's an exciting project, as we both think it is something very different, so yes, we hope to have it done soon.
next up is another collaboration, with Jennifer Oakley, who contributed vocals, oboe, and piano, on my last album "there is only now". we're really only just in the planning stages at the moment, with perhaps two or three songs on the burner, but with a lot more to come. again, this will not be an ambient allbum, but a song based album, using my sounds and other real instruments, and of course, vocals, with Jennifer writing all the lyrics. i may even sing on it, too, as well as adding some percussion, here and there. but yes, it's underway, and on the front burner (we did have one track that we did together featured on the S4G album "Oceans".)
currently, and in the forseeable future, my work with 48 Cameras continues apace. we have just had our album Right North, She Said, released, on which i contributed music, playing, six or seven spoken word tracks (not my words), sound re-engineering, a heap of editing, and mixing. we have a new album coming out on Sirenwire Editions here in the U.K at the end of November, which is a 47 minute long track, and then, early next year, a collaboration we have done with Scanner will be released.
after this, there is a plan to do more work with Nick Grey, which may include a collaboration with him, as well, and then there is the possibility of me assisting him and his band on a small European tour, where i'll be mainly sound engineering, but also contributing some music, too.
all of this will take me to Autumn 2013, and beyond then.....? i do have some ideas, but again, none of them revolve around any solo works, and even if i am not closing off the possibility of that happening, doing more solo ambient album's isn't appealing to me right now, as i just have too many, much more exciting, projects to look forwards to. there may be the odd "one-off" piece, here or there, or maybe, just maybe, a long form piece or two, but it's not in my mind to do so at this point in time. saying that, the future hasn't happened yet, so, who knows. who really knows.
Wow--it looks like we can look forward to a lot of diverse and interesting work from you in the near future. Any final words you'd like to add to this interview, anything we haven't covered that you'd like to say?
i hope all of it will pan out, Jeffrey, and if so, yes, i'll be pretty busy for the forseeable future.
as for anything else? well.. i do know, and am deeply aware, of just how lucky i am to be able to do what i do, and that i am sometimes given a platform for my work, and i have John Koch-Northrup to thank for most things in that regard, and for convincing me that i should carry on with making music, as i did come very close indeed to giving it all up.
as i have mentioned before, i really do only write for me, and if anyone else should like it, then that is a huge bonus, but i also know i do not have any right to be heard, so yes, i do feel very lucky indeed that i sometimes am. for me, writing music, and creating sounds, is where the fun is at. the creativity of it. the process of it. the doing and being of it. the flow of it. i have to feel it. that's the main thing, for me, above all else.