For an artist with such a range of creative outlets, Keith Kenniff is nothing if not consistent.
Over the past decade or so, the composer has sat square on the intersections of ambient, electronic and modern classical composition, cementing himself as a key proponent of this particularly quiet corner of the musical world.
Under his Helios and Goldmund monikers – the former a platform for instrumental, pastoral electronica, the latter his extensive forays into solo piano pieces – Kenniff creates music for headphones and empty rooms, lush vignettes that, in their painterly construction, circumvent the glib evocation of many of his peers.
It’s timeless stuff, disconnected from sonic trends and quietly cinematic without being cloying or grandiose. On first listens, ‘Dragonfly Across an Ancient Sky’ – a cut from Helios’ then-recent 2006 opus Eingya and the first piece of Kenniff’s music I’d heard – was a subtle revelation. That chimeric title belied a tangible and organic palette of spare, rustling half-beats, sad washes of smeared melody and circular guitar figures; a beguiling five or so minutes of pensive lilt that struck a perfect balance between glacial post rock and the single 1 Mile North record which comprised nearly all this writer’s ambient listening at the time. (By being on Type Records, it also acted as the gateway to a world of glitch, dub-techno, drone and light noise that would rewire an entire musical purview.)
After releasing another three records on Type (Helios’ Ayres and Caesura, and Goldmund’s The Malady of Elegance – the first Goldmund album Corduroy Road having been released a year earlier), Kenniff has since released largely on his own Unseen Music label and Brian Sampson’s Western Vinyl. (He also makes noise pop records under the name Mint Julep, with his wife Hollie, as well as recording under his own name.)
Simultaneously, he has carved out a more visible (or at least, ubiquitous) career as a commercial composer, scoring myriad films and ads for companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, VW and Toyota, as well as feature films and documentaries. To skew an old adage, even those without a clue who Kenniff is will almost certainly have heard his music.
Next month sees the release of a new Helios record, Yume, as well as an as yet untitled Mint Julep album, both funded via Kickstarter in a pledge push that raised over $25,000. FACT spoke to Kenniff about 10 years at the forefront of this quiet frontier; where the line of disingenuous evocation is drawn between his personal and commissioned work; and what it means for an artist with such a consistent aesthetic and sonic identity to begin releasing music ‘on his own terms’.
I’ll start with Yume – I was interested that you were drawn to Kickstarter to fund this and the new Mint Julep record, and especially that you stated that it meant that you could release them “on your own terms”. Given that you’ve a recognisable sound across your guises and have released records pretty consistently for the past decade (many on your own label), how are things working differently this time around?
I have done some smaller releases under the Unseen imprint, but it’s mostly been very quick and dirty: just press up a small amount of CDs and announce it on social media, and my newsletter. I’d master it, do all the layout and art direction, no music videos or anything. The last Helios EP I did (Moiety) was just a digital release and originally only went out to newsletter subscribers. With both of these new releases we wanted to put more into it and expand the reach [with] proper promotion. We got some great mastering engineers on board (Taylor Deupree did Helios and Carl Saff did Mint Julep), allotted money for proper art direction, [we’ll] do a vinyl run (for Helios) and collaborate with some directors for music videos.
Also, being able to have all the material under the wing of Unseen means that we completely own the music we created. We are in control of the accounting, we communicate directly to our distributors and promotion people, and retain 100% of the master rights. It’s surely a lot more work than handing over a finished album to a label and then having a team of people handle these multiple facets, but I think it’s also quite fulfilling to be involved with it so closely on its journey from my head into someone’s hands.
I’ve always thought Matthew Woodson’s artwork was a perfect fit for your music [the American illustrator designed covers for Eingya, Caesura and Yume]. What is it about his work that you’ve been drawn to in the past that made you return to it for the new record?
Matthew has a depth and sincerity to his illustrations that I find is rare. He always tries to have a very intense sense of narrative, something that tells a story that will connect a bold sense of emotion. He and I first collaborated on the cover for Eingya in 2006. What I did was send him some outlines of dreams that I had had (I used to keep a dream journal) and he came back with that image which was almost exactly what I had seen in my head. He just really gets a wide variety of perspectives yet manages to retain a style that is very unique to him.
[For Yume] I told Matthew that I wanted to have a strong narrative quality, and I liked the idea of it featuring people, perhaps a continuation of the couple idea from Eingya. He sent over a sketch and I loved it; we don’t really have to go through many revisions, he just gets it straight away. His dedication to his work is outlined in the thousands of tiny blades of grass that he hand drew for that cover.
I wanted the cover to have a certain feeling of haziness. I knew I wanted to call the album Yume (Japanese for “dream”) but I didn’t want to be really obvious with the image reflecting that (i.e. someone sleeping). I wanted it to tell a story but with a vagueness that you often get with a dream where you get bits and pieces of something but not the whole picture.
How does your writing process work: do you start in a figurative or image led way, or is it purely sonic?
I almost always start with shaping sounds and textures rather than composing melody/harmony. That part always comes later and gets added over top of a bed of sounds that serve as a foundation. I don’t have a particular storyline or try to evoke anything deliberate. I seem to do a lot of second guessing in my life outside of music; however, I don’t really do that when I’m writing and just keep going with an idea without pondering what it means or what I’m trying to say. I will let a song sit for a while, but I think that’s only because it sometimes happens in fits and starts. I think I have to be respectful to the fact that the pace of the process is not always linear.
How have you managed to keep this process fresh and interesting for over a decade?
I think by deliberately taking time and not forcing it – that helps to give ideas a way to breathe and mature. Time has a way of working out the kinks instead of just plowing ahead through trial and error. That can be very unproductive. I just still really like making the music, it brings me a sense of relief and centres me. Ultimately it’s a self-indulgent kind of thing, but I think it remains fresh to me because I have not tried to make the process into something more than it is; it’s just me sitting down and tweaking a sound until it makes me happy, then putting all these sonically pleasing elements together until a song emerges.
Presumably this differs across your separate guises – what creative impulses are Goldmund and Mint Julep vehicles for?
Each one is pretty radically different. Helios is very time intensive and detailed, fine-tuned, lots of tracks, layering, some non-linear arrangements (through-composed, no definable A, B, C sections, choruses). Goldmund is almost entirely confined to solo piano, with some very minimal ambient treatments; it’s almost all improvised and I leave mistakes in without the compulsion to correct them. The tracks are generally quite short, with little dynamic variation, focused more on sound and texture than composition or performance. Mint Julep is a more traditional format, verse/chorus, where it’s focused on a song with lyrics (my wife, Hollie, is singing). The songs are a bit more bold, more punch and focus on driving elements (guitar, live drums, distortion). There’s quite a bit of ambient, textural things in there, but the songwriting and tonal characteristics are pretty equal.
The only instance of you working in a conceptual way came with Goldmund’s All Will Prosper, a record of appropriated American Civil War songs. Do you have any plans to do anything else drawing so explicitly on external sources?
I tossed and turned with All Will Prosper for a long time, I didn’t go into that with the intention of releasing the songs, it was just a collection of things I recorded as a way to learn the tunes because I had heard a wonderful interpretations of those Civil War-era songs by the pianist Bill Carrothers on an album called The Blues and the Greys. I didn’t know if it fit into the whole Goldmund ‘picture’, but in the end I think the fact that it became very piano-led and generally very quiet and sparse dictated that I kept it under that umbrella. I think the forms on Goldmund compositions are pretty open and varied, but I do try and keep the tone similar; there are no epic builds or huge bursts of emotion. It’s purposefully unrefined.
I think the concept of the Goldmund material will continue to be pretty vague; with the exception of All Will Prosper, I think future material will be left open ended, not didactic in any regard to any particular theme.
“I like to use ‘accidental’ sounds and make them into something that wasn’t intended. It seems more personal than just layering in an 808 or some sample pack or drum machine.”
There’s a real warmth and an organic feel to your work, especially as Helios – it’s particularly prevalent in the spare glitch aspects and in the ‘earthy’ quality to a lot of your beats. Is it a pretty equal split between analog and electronic elements?
The only piece of analog equipment that I have is a Prophet 8 that I just got this past year, but I barely used on the Helios album. I use a little mini-cassette recorder for re-recording a lot of elements, putting them back into a session, then mangling them in some way. A lot of elements in the drums are things that I sample from elements I record: a creak from walking across the studio after a take may turn into a hi-hat loop, or a crack from something around the house becomes a snare drum. The post office truck slammed its door outside my apartment many years ago while I was recording something, and I’ve used that sound so many times as a snare.
I like to use those ‘accidental’ sounds and make them into something that wasn’t intended. It seems more personal than just layering in an 808 or some sample pack or drum machine. On the new Helios album I did also play a lot of live drums, which I haven’t really done on previous albums (it’s mostly been sampled), but I layered it a lot with sequenced rhythms as well, so it’s all kind of mangled up. I have a degree in percussion, so it’s always more natural having spent so much time playing rhythms with my hands and feet rather than sampling, but by default (having limited access to recording live drums in apartments in the past) I’ve also learned to become comfortable playing rhythms on a keyboard, or clicking it in with a mouse. Both yield very different results I think, and both have strengths and weaknesses.
There’s a Discogs review of one of your Helios records that refers to your style as ‘sound as memory’. It led me to wondering what exactly you thought ambient or new age-leaning music of this vein is created to do, and whether you approach it as an active or passive form.
I think it should be active. Even if music is quiet or has minimal dynamic shifts or is generally very ‘static’, I think that kind of music has the potential to frame a moment as deeply as something like Gorecki’s ‘Symphony No.3’, something which is so outwardly emotional. I like to listen to music to make me feel something, and it doesn’t have to be in-your-face – it can be slight and subtle but still make a discernible impact.
Ayres [the follow-up EP to Eingya] is the only solo record you’ve made with a vocal element – is there a reason you never revisited that?
I got into this phase where I was kind of stuck in figuring out what I wanted to do with the Helios stuff. It still hadn’t plateaued to a point where I felt comfortable with a certain ‘sound’ or intention. I went through a period where I wrote nothing on the computer and wrote dozens and dozens of songs just singing with a guitar. I hit this point where I really just enjoyed writing lyrics and songs. I had always been frustrated with my voice, so I wanted to try and fight to make that part of me stronger and develop it, so I just wrote a ton of things to try and sing. Ultimately this fed into the Helios material and I wanted to marry the two. It seemed natural at the time, but afterwards as suddenly as my interest in singing began, it just sort of stopped. I recorded a whole album’s worth of acoustic songs with me singing, but I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day. It was a fun experiment and I learned a lot from it though. I think Helios with vocals could still work technically, but I also think the instrumental/textural sound of it should probably be the main focus, since it’s not song-based and is more open-ended. Vocals box it in a little bit for me. Ultimately I chose (and will continue) to keep the future Helios material vocal-less.
How do you approach commissioned film and commercial work differently to your album work?
The two are really quite different. With the Helios material it’s just very focused on what I want. I don’t think about others or concern myself with it’s reception with an audience, I can take as much time as I want to. However, with commercial work it’s all about the audience (the client, the consumer, the agency and creatives etc). I am hired to do a job based on a specific set of parameters with a definable (usually very tight) timeline and I inject my own sensibilities into those parameters to make something that serves the film and does so in keeping with certain aspects of my own aesthetic. The commercial work covers a lot of different areas, some is more in line with ambient stuff I do (Helios, Goldmund), and other times I’m doing purely orchestral material that’s pretty sweeping and epic, some quirky acoustic stuff, some indie rock that’s more guitar-driven – it’s generally quite varied.
How and when did you get into scoring and ad/film work in the first place? Has it always been a parallel interest to your album work?
In 2006, just out of college I had a Goldmund song (‘Ba’ from Corduroy Road) licensed for a Toyota ad campaign. It kind of came out of the blue, but I was so excited because I always wanted to score a film – or pair my music to a visual medium – and it was thrilling to see it presented in this way. The agency actually wanted some changes to the arrangement, but I didn’t have access to a piano anymore, so that night I actually flew down to my parent’s house to record on the same piano I had written that song on, and did the changes. I landed and literally went straight to the piano and spent all night doing alternate versions. Ironically, they ended up going with the version of the original track they had edited.
Soon after, two other songs from that album were licensed for the film Mister Lonely by Harmony Korine; I loved his films and it really gave me a spark of thinking I could possibly do some scoring to film. I’m pretty obsessed with film scores and actually wrote a whole album of ‘imaginary’ scores (which hasn’t seen the light of day) in 2004–2005. After the Toyota ad, I worked with some music production companies to custom score commercials. I said yes to everything, and did pitch after pitch, landing some things along the way but working really intense hours writing tons of material just to build up my portfolio. There is a lot of competition, with turnaround times being one or two days, or even the same day, to write, record, mix and master, with little notice. I’ve done upwards of 30 revisions on a single project in less than a week for spots that are 30–60 seconds long.
Along the way I just kept meeting people and writing lots of different material and I was starting to land higher profile ads. Then Media Arts Lab contacted me to license a piece I had written that they heard on my SoundCloud music library page for the iPhone 4s campaign. It was a very exciting thing and I think after that my work for film/ads just found its way to a larger variety of different people within the industry.
It’s a much different skillset than just writing music for oneself. It requires a lot of different tools that I think has made me grow as a writer and mixer, having to constantly step outside of my comfort zone.
I think a lot of people who are into the kind of ambient and post-rock leaning styles of your work as Helios might normally balk at the kind of wilfully sentimental ad music often used by Apple/Facebook etc. Where’s the line drawn between the sincerely and the cynically evocative when it comes to this kind of work?
I think I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with some pretty great people who are very interested in creating work within the context of ‘ads’ that injects a high level of artistic integrity and thoughtfulness. Largely the creatives and directors I’ve worked with care a lot about music and its importance to the success of a film. In that regard I feel like I have been given a fair amount of freedom to not simply just colour in the lines, but people have been respectful and open to what I would bring specifically to the project. My solo projects and commercial work are quite different in their respective contexts but I do try and keep the bar raised equally high for both.
Your Goldmund bio on Western Vinyl mentions an affinity for composers as diverse as Satie and Budd (there’s definitely something Impressionistic in there too). Are there any other artists – past or present – that you particular relate to or associate yourself with? And if so, was the Helios remix album a reflection of this?
Yeah, everyone on the Helios Remixed album were people who have had a big influence on me. I was really honoured to have such a great line-up of folks contribute to that. I started out making music and sharing music around a lot of the Merck/Type Records community, I still view all of those artists as huge inspirations and life long friends – a lot of musicians who I’ve gotten to know along the way or talk to, or play with, [like] Balmorhea, Peter Broderick, Rafael Anton Irisarri, Taylor Deupree, Jon Hopkins. I just really like all sorts of music. I tend to listen to a variety of things and get absolutely obsessive about repeatedly listening to an album or artist over and over (i.e. Arovane’s Tides, Tom Recchion’s Chaotica, John Adams’ Naive and Sentimental Music). I crave the search for that next album that I can’t do that without, and luckily I always continually find them. It never gets stale.
Finally, is there a particularly record or piece you’ve done which is that which you’re most satisfied with, or you feel represents best your approach to writing music?
There’s a piece I wrote under my Goldmund moniker called ‘Threnody’ and I think it encapsulates my intention in regard to trying to say a lot with a little as possible. It’s a very unfussy piece, extremely simple to play, but I think there was an emotional balance there which I hit that made a lot of sense to me and didn’t feel forced. I like that it neglects any sort of technicality and virtuosity and focuses almost entirely on space and the moment/environment it was recorded in.