Emeralds: jewel purpose
As they prepare to release their new album via Editions Mego, Ohio synth dreamers Emeralds talk in-depth to FACT
Emeralds: jewel purpose
As they prepare to release their new album via Editions Mego, Ohio synth dreamers Emeralds talk in-depth to FACT
Emeralds are the synth and guitar trio from Cleveland, Ohio, comprising Mark McGuire, John Elliott and Steve Hauschildt.
They formed in 2006, releasing a daunting number of short-run CD-Rs and cassettes, before settling down into a more conventional pattern of releases under the Emeralds name, with individual members being involved in a variety of disparate parallel solo projects. The more recent Emeralds releases, from the 27 minutes of kosmische drone bliss that is Solar Bridge (on the Hanson label), to the longer and more fractured sonic experimentation of What Happened (on Carlos Giffoni’s No Fun), have led to the band being spoken of as figureheads of the somewhat nebulous “hypnagogic pop” scene, though the connection is, to be quite honest, rather tenuous. New album Does It Look Like I’m Here for the Editions Mego label sees the trio pushing the Emeralds sound into previously unexplored directions, using a raft of new equipment and taking a more structured approach to individual tracks, resulting in what is quite possibly their best full-length statement yet. FACT’s Scott McMillan spoke to all three band members on the eve of its release.
“Every one of our records is special to us and we want people who get them to feel like they have something real.”
For the beginner, the Emeralds discography can seem a little opaque and overwhelming owing to its size, but your release schedule has slowed down in recent years. Is there a reason for this?
Mark: “In the past couple of years since we’ve started recording full-length albums we tend to spend a lot more time just working on those, trying to make them really special. It takes a lot longer and during the process, the idea of a tape or other release doesn’t really fit in. Also, a couple years ago we were doing way more live improvisations at practice, giving us a lot of material to work with. Now we’re working more on putting pieces together and practising them over and over. We still do improv jams here and there, but we’ve mostly been focussed on taking our live set to the next level.”
Steve: “I’ve had to spend some time pouring through manuals and learning a lot of new equipment since the majority of my gear was stolen in New York City last year. That had much more of an effect on my solo release schedule than on Emeralds projects however.”
The core Emeralds “canon” [Allegory of Allergies, Solar Bridge, Emeralds, What Happened], is spread across a number of different labels, on limited runs, with reissues coming in and out of print – I’ve found myself recommending these records to people over the last couple of years, but then they can’t get hold of them. Has this been as frustrating for you as it has been for me?
Mark: “Yeah! I would love to give everyone I knew a copy of every record we make, but since they’re usually pretty limited it’s hard to do that. Every one of our records is special to us and we want people who get them to feel like they have something real, I just hope that eventually everyone who wants a copy of our record is able to get one.”
John: “It’s important to make focussed efforts to keep official full-length releases in print always, and we are working to do this. With vinyl there are always delays and it’s extremely frustrating. It seems like nobody can cut a record in the United States. RTI does pretty good work, but for the price you might as well be getting a European cut.”
Both Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never now have albums coming out on the Austrian experimental electronic label Editions Mego, which is perhaps an unexpected place to see these records. How did this come about? Are you familiar with much of the label’s output?
John: “It’s flattering! I was a fan of the label before we met Mr. Rehberg [Peter Rehberg, who runs Editions Mego] in New York at the No Fun festival, which is how we sort of got around to doing a record for him. I am very much interested in all of [Mego’s] releases past and present. I think it makes sense for all associated parties because these albums [by Emeralds and OPN] do, in fact, sound like future Mego albums. I think what’s unexpected is the timing as the label is working on a scientific scale with electronic music and phonography with artists like Florian Hecker, Russell Haswell, Bruce Gilbert, et cetera.”
Mark: “Mego is sick. Of course [Fennesz’s] Endless Summer was a huge influence on all of us, but there’s a few other really key records on Mego that opened our heads up big time. Our friend Eric had the Jim O’Rourke record [I’m Happy, And I’m Singing, And A 1,2,3,4] back before we were really jamming, and of course the Kevin Drumm CD [Sheer Hellish Miasma]. Since we’ve been on the label Peter has given us a lot of the other stuff to check out, and it’s all amazing. I’m really proud to be a part of it!”
Steve: “I think Peter was interested in adding a new dimension or sonic palette to his label in a way that made sense. We had all heard some of the more ‘major’ Mego releases and quite enjoyed them. Actually years ago I had bought the IBM LP [a collaboration between Pan Sonic and Bruce Gilbert] on a whim and accidentally left it in the back seat of my car during a hot day in July. Needless to say it melted a little bit, but it still plays.”
Emeralds are often bracketed with Oneohtrix Point Never, Skaters, Ducktails and Dolphins Into The Future in what has been called the “hypnagogic pop” scene. Do you feel a kinship with these artists, or is this just lazy pigeonholing?
John: “I think the ‘hypnagogic pop’ tag is extremely vague and inconclusive and therefore faulty. I do not see a musical connection between the sound of, say, Dolphins Into The Future and Emeralds, and I think the same could be said for everybody being tagged with this new genre. That’s not to say I don’t feel a kinship with some of these artists on a personal level, because I do, very much so. I want to take Dan Lopatin [Oneohtrix Point Never] and Matt Mondanile [Ducktails] to Cedar Point [an amusement park in Ohio] as soon as I can!
Steve: “Mark and myself lived with James Ferraro for two months or so in Antwerp in the Fall of 2009, and the three of us met him and Spencer Clark [Ferraro’s band-mate in Skaters] in New York years back. Lieven Martens [Dolphins Into The Future] put out a tape for me and he also lives in Antwerp, so yeah, we have spent some time getting to know all of these people on a personal basis. I don’t feel there is a strong enough correlation between the music we make to pigeonhole anything into a new genre. It’s much too early for anything like that, but people crave order and need to organize things for some reason; quite a strange phenomenon.
“Historically the most significant artists defied categorization because they invented their own universe in which to be observed and appreciated. This is evident across all forms of art. It is frustrating to be lumped into something preemptively against your own will, but there is only so much the artist can do on his side of the fence. I hope our fans understand that we aim to try something new with each release to counter such moves by a larger press. We aren’t too caught up in meeting expectations of any kind really, what’s necessary is having a creative engine going all the time.”
“It seems that very few people appreciate the beauty of the cross-referencing built into music and elsewhere. Once you can tap into it genres literally disappear and it no longer become necessary to define anything.”
One thing that some of these artists we’re talking about might share is an affinity for music which which may have been overlooked, unfashionable or written off in the past – from kosmische to new age to 80s MOR. Why is this music being rediscovered now?
John: “I have no idea why. I think every kind of music has bits that are unfashionable or overlooked. Especially in the new hyper-blog reality where it doesn’t even matter if the quality of the work is truly outstanding, and it’s just valuable based on how obscure or unknown it is, or what the listing of equipment is.”
Mark: “Some of my favorite records are probably what a lot of people would call middle of the road, but to me that doesn’t take away from the music at all. There are a lot of gems on those records, and finding them is like finding hidden treasure! A lot of artists that were overlooked and not highly regarded in their time have really heartfelt songs, because they have nothing to prove and don’t have a huge persona to live up to. And besides, I like to root for the underdog, I’m from Cleveland!”
Steve: “I have no idea what kind of trends are going on with what people are listening to and could care less. I am concerned with my own taste and what sounds good and not what any institution has to say, unless it’s guiding me to new information. It seems that very few people appreciate the beauty of the cross-referencing built into music and elsewhere. Once you can tap into it genres literally disappear and it no longer become necessary to define anything.”
The names of Ash Ra Temple, Tangerine Dream and other late 70s and early 80s synth acts come up a lot when discussing Emeralds. Have these ever been a conscious influence on you?
Steve: “Of course we have heard all of that stuff, but we aren’t intending to mimic anything except the way that we feel through our instruments. I think that’s really how you arrive at a ‘new’ sound anyway. It’s easiest to depart from something if you have no idea it exists, which sucks for us because we’ve listened to so much already. Sometimes it’s actually better to be ignorant if you want to start something new.”
John: “I love Tangerine Dream, but the tag is really, really annoying at this point. I honestly have been listening to a lot of psych-rock and just plain rock lately. I guess some of the earlier electronic stuff was and continues to influence many of the works. I am burned out on a lot of synth-pop and 80s styles so I can’t say that I am influenced by them too much right now, but as a whole it’s definitely affected me. The kind of late 70s or early 80s electronic music which I enjoy right now comes more from the INA GRM and Lovely Music catalogues sides and less from the pop side.”
“It’s easiest to depart from something if you have no idea it exists, which sucks for us because we’ve listened to so much already.”
The INA GRM and Lovely Music rosters include real forward-thinking composers like Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley and Pierre Schaeffer. Is it the shared innovative ethos of artists like these that you relate to, rather than the specific sounds?
John: “Absolutely. These artists took it upon themselves to push acoustic-electric and modern electronic composition into a world where people still haven’t been able to comprehend the dense amount of information produced out of those studios. Robert Ashley is definitely a favorite, as well as Alvin Lucier and David Behrman.”
Mark: “I would say it’s a little bit of both. The spirit and ideas of artists like this are so inspiring to us to go out and create something new, something from within. I think their sounds still have an influence as well, because those records help our heads get to places that we might need to go in order to trigger something within ourselves that tells us to create.”
The new album seems different in a number of ways to your previous work. Tracks sound less improvised than anything on, say, Solar Bridge or What Happened, more structured. I’ve even heard this described as Emeralds’ “pop album”. How did the process of writing the tracks on the new album compare to previous releases?
Mark: “It was really similar to working on our self-titled record as far as the recording process. We would work with frames of ideas, go back and add things and change them as the idea developed. Since this record had a lot more songs, there was a lot we could do with each track. It was all about finding the right balance of elements for each one.”
Steve: “None of the tracks on this release were recorded live, they were made piece by piece. Songs tend to come together quite naturally for us and we can tell when a track has to be relegated to a B-side or to the ‘vaults’.”
John: “We spent a number of weeks in a home recording set-up pounding out tracks, a few at a time sometimes. ‘Genetic’ was a nightmare to record. All of our computers kept crashing or having a latency. We don’t do much post-production at all and we record with Audition which is an extremely primitive recording software. It was a longer and more calculated process for sure.”
“These artists took it upon themselves to push acoustic-electric and modern electronic composition into a world where people still haven’t been able to comprehend the dense amount of information produced out of those studios. Robert Ashley is definitely a favorite, as well as Alvin Lucier and David Behrman.”
Some of the tracks on the new album were previously released on 7″, while previous releases have been on cassette or CD-R. Does the choice of format it will be released on have any influence on the music?
John: “In some ways it must influence the track with time restrictions because in the beginning, we would always think of how the track would be on a vinyl record, so that is how we tend to think about the music which we create. For the new tracks we knew we were going to make a bunch of 7″s so we knew to keep most of them under 5 minutes for clean cuts.”
There was a change-up in terms of the equipment you used for this album, right?
Steve: “I had to rebuild my set-up from the ground up and it took a lot of capital and time to do this. I chose the Prophet 08 synthesizer by Dave Smith Instruments because of its versatility and programmability as well as its durability (I know this sounds like a plug). I enjoy creating or modifying sounds and the possibilities are literally boundless with that instrument. It is in fact 100% analoueg which a small contingent of synth dorks might have a hard time accepting because it is an 8-voice polysynth. I also use an array of different rack equipment to sculpt the sound even further – filters, effects, mixers, et cetera.”
Mark: “On the new record I play electric guitars, Les Paul and Stratocaster, and do vocals. On some of the tracks, like the title-track, I process my guitar heavily with two guitar-synthesizers. On some of the other pieces, it’s just raw guitar with no loops or effects.”
John: “On the first few tracks I use a Korg Poly 800 and a Kaossilator, which are both extremely questionable instruments…but why not? Aside from that I used a Moog Voyager OS and an analogue sequencer on the other 85% of my tracking…so pretty much an all analogue set up. I was working with three oscillators compared with the single oscillator I’m used to, and a powerful sequencer, and I feel like I barely scratched the surface. We have a lot of new ideas.”
This record feels like a big progression anyway – what sort of new ideas are you talking about?
John: “The new album was absolutely a big progression, however, the public sees us move at a very different rate than we see ourselves move on a day to day basis. We’ve acquired a lot of new equipment, and we keep getting more and more. With synthesizers the possibilities start to multiply the more you have with respect to functionality. We have new ideas to bring more complex rhythms forward as well as incorporating other new instruments we may have not used in Emeralds before.”
Mark: “Things happen all the time that start the ball rolling toward something newer and bigger than before. Our ideas always breed new concepts and ways of approaching playing, and our new stuff is giving us lots of things to think over.”
The track ‘Candy Shoppe’ has a real euphoric moment; you can almost imagine some tracks from the new album being played in clubs. Do you listen to much contemporary electronic dance music?
Mark: “I think the title track has more potential to be played in dance clubs than ‘Candy Shoppe’, although that would be totally weird! It would be cool though. I love to dance and listen to a lot of danceable music, but generally older stuff, not much contemporary stuff really. My personal taste just leans more towards the older sounds. Some of our friends in Belgium like Hungry Soul and Sickboy Milkplus are making killer new dance music, and I know there’s other good stuff out there, it’s just not really our zone at the moment.”
“With synthesizers the possibilities start to multiply the more you have with respect to functionality. We have new ideas to bring more complex rhythms forward as well as incorporating other new instruments we may have not used in Emeralds before.”
John: “I am honestly afraid of a lot of the contemporary electronic music because of the sheer volume and – in my perspective – the low quality and rehash factor, so I don’t listen to too much of it. I do enjoy Monolake and the work of Robert Henke, Thomas Brinkmann, the Raster-Noton label, the Imbalance Computer Music label…so it does get leaked in there. My neighbor runs The Bent Crayon. which is a world-class electronic music distributor and store front, so it does rub off from time to time.”
Steve: “In Europe they have a much more established history of dance music and I’ve gone to a number of clubs there, but we recorded ‘Candy Shoppe’ before Mark and I went on sabbatical in Belgium – so I don’t think the newer dance music we were exposed to had much of an influence on that track or anything on the new record.”
As well as the group material, you’ve all recently released really well-received solo records – from Steve’s Critique Of The Beautiful album, to John’s Imaginary Softwoods and Outer Space projects, to Mark’s Solo Acoustic guitar record. What do you all have planned for the rest of 2010?
John: “Mark and Steve both have incredible solo works! My debut album as Outer Space will be ready for the summer, hopefully in June. That’s been in the works since 2008. Then an Outer Space 12″/CD EP for the winter. Also another issue of the Imaginary Softwoods double LP, this time in a gatefold with a D+M [Berlin mastering studio Dubplates + Mastering] cut. That will be great!
Steve: “I’m not sure if my first record for Kranky will come out in 2010 but it is in the works right now despite a nearly non-existent recording situation. There will be a reissue of Critique Of The Beautiful on vinyl on Digitalis/Boomkat, as well as a new 12″ on Nashazphone and a one-sided 12″ etching on Root Strata.”
Mark: “My first ‘full-length’ LP will be out on Plastic Records this year, entitled, Living With Yourself. I spent most of last year recording it, and it’s been in my head for years. Really excited for it to come out, it should be any time now! Weird Forest is re-issuing two of my favorite old tapes, Tidings and Amethyst Waves, which should also be out soon. I have a collaborative LP with percussionist Nate Scheible coming out on Music Fellowship, re-issue LPs on Cylindrical Habitat Modules and Arbor, and am starting to put together ideas for a release on Mego. I’ll also be continuing to work on various cassette albums and CDR releases.”
“I think we use our solo projects to accent our individual voices in the band, and to introduce ideas that may not fall into place with the vision we have of Emeralds at that time.”
What is it about these pieces of work which makes them solo releases as opposed to things which you’d want to bring to the table to work on for an Emeralds album?
John: “With something like Outer Space, it’s really a lot of discovering the instrument and getting better, then bringing something to the table for Emeralds. A track like ‘Memory Bomb’ from my self-titled LP has a lot of parallels to the track ‘Genetic’, which is an Emeralds track, as I literally worked on my parts for both of them at the same time so they ended up somewhat similar in construction. Outer Space has less musical qualities (hooks, melodies, rhythms) and focusses more on abstract properties of synthesis. I am very interested in unusual random sounds that cannot be repeated.
Mark: “I think we use our solo projects to accent our individual voices in the band, and to introduce ideas that may not fall into place with the vision we have of Emeralds at that time. To me, our sound is like when a child is born. Two people made it, but once it’s alive it exists on its own. All we can do is try to help it grow naturally; sometimes our ideas don’t directly relate what we’re trying to do with Emeralds, and sometimes the ideas just make more sense on as solo pieces.”
You talked earlier on about how you were focusing on developing your live set. For those of us who haven’t seen you play live, how do you approach your gigs? In particular, how improvised are they?
Mark: “Up until pretty recently, a lot of our live shows were mostly improvised, sometimes completely! We wanted to do something different every time for a while, always trying to surprise everyone with something different. We still do that to an extent, but now we are more focussed on working out recorded pieces to be played live. There is still a lot of room for improvising, and even if we try really hard it’s impossible to do something exactly the same twice, but now we have really solid foundations to work on.”
Will we get a chance to see Emeralds live for ourselves first-hand in Europe this year?
Mark: “We’ll have a number of festival one-off performances in the second half of the year.”