DeepChord is back with a new album on Soma – “Sommer”. For that reason we had a little chat with a producer behind that project – Rod Modell. Did you know that he was supposed to be… a catholic priest? Or that he believes that sound can heal an illness? Or he hates comparisons to Basic Channel? No? So – read our interview.
– You are from Detroit, but your early recordings from the mid 90s were ambient oriented. Why weren’t you interested in techno sounds emerging from Motor City at that time?
– True about the ambient period, but I was interested in the Detroit sound since the very bginning. I was so happy to be immersed in this movement that was occurring all around me. It was amazing to see this happening. People were coming to Detroit from around the world to see what was going on back then. I was happy for Detroit. I think personally it just took some time to shift gears from one thing to another. I loved techno, but wasn’t interested in copying it. Rather, I wanted to take parts of the sound that I liked and incorporate those into what I was doing. I sat back and decided which elements to use. I think I had to stop and focus for a couple years and really decide. I still don’t think I ever made a Detroit Techno album. Maybe I didn’t make a dub techno or ambient album either. I think it’s like a painting, and I use colors that I like best, and whatever comes out…. comes out. My music is a soup of influences that I started collecting in the 1980’s. I think I’m more influenced by 1950’s 78 RPM records, Steve Reich, AM radios tuned between stations and outer-space sound-effects records more than techno.
– I`ve heard that you were involved in some industrial projects in the 80s. What turned you from these harsh sounds to electro-acoustic music you released on Silent, Hypnos or Lunar labels?
– I think I owe lots to my friend Michael Mantra here. He taught me the difference between harsh noise and soft noise. Mike is a talented producer in California and was on Silent Records (Kim Cascone’s old label) with me. Mike was really into old French musique concrète artists like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, who were using raw audio material to compose “music” (analog sampling). Mike would have a bunch of CD players and tape recorders going through a mixer with effects, and would create compositions with these “instruments”. At some point, Mike and I decided to collaborate on soundscapes. We started sending elements back and forth, and adding to each others material. Sometimes I would do my part, and send it to Mike and get a call back saying what I did was too harsh. At first I was a little angry, but I took Mike’s suggestions, and things came out nicer, and I started learning how to classify sounds by their harshness level and the impact that they have on the nervous system. It was a great learning experience that I still use today. It didn’t come overnight, but over months. Mike had a very buddhistic approach to sound, and was always talking about the effect certain sounds had on the chakras. I started seeing sound in a whole new way.
– How did you get to know Mike Shommer and created with him a DeepChord project and label?
– I was friends with Mike’s older sister. She is the same age as me and we were friends. Mike’s father was an artist (painter) who, at the time was giving me lots of great advice on the art-world and how to approach it (with my photography). I met Mike through knowing his sister. Mike was a great guitarist who was interested in electronic music, and asked how to get involved. I suggested a workstation of some sort (synth/sampler w/ sequencer and FX built in) as a first piece because I thought it would be simpler than hunting down numerous components… and if he liked it, he could do that later (which he did). Eventually, I found someone selling an Ensoniq ESP sampler cheap, told Mike, and he bought it. At the time I had a small studio and was helping Mike record some demos. These were later heard by Rich Hawtin, and he was very interested in releasing the material on +8. We met with him a few times and discussed it over coffee. Then, +8 was dissolved due to some complications that I didn’t understand, so we said “let’s do it ourselves”. Mike wanted to call the label “Output”, but after research, we saw that name was taken. So I suggested the name “Deepchord”. It was a word that I invented and used for years before the label. It’s how I described the “chord hit” sound in records like Rhythmatic’s “Demons”. Mike thought it sounded OK, so we went with it. Later we crossed paths with Rich again, and he asked about “joining the M-NUS camp”, but things were going better than expected, so we just kept doing it ourselves.
– DeepChord is now your solo project. What happened with Mike?
– Yeah, somewhere along the line, DC went from being a label to an artist name. Mike chose a little different path than I did I guess. We’re still friends, and he’s doing great, but he’s got 5 (wonderful) kids now, and sometimes with 5 kids… there isn’t much time for music. Mike had to deal with the demands of his family. I tried getting him motivated on working with the label for a couple years, but I think he thought it would take from his family, and he put them first. So I kept working with it, and eventually it went to being my artist name. The last thing with Mike was 2001 (DC13). I don’t have any kids, so maybe I can be less concerned with the security of a traditional job. That`s pretty much the whole story condensed. I still see him, and my wife is friends with his wife and they talk on the phone often. This question really made me think about how time has flown. I guess I didn’t really realize it. Actually, DC had been around since the late 1990’s. Really, Mike was only involved for the first 2-3 years. Been doing it by myself since 2001. Unbelievable how time flies.
– Critics considered DeepChord as continuation of the Basic Channel experiments with ambient, dub and techno. Were you really influenced by Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus recordings?
– BC was an influence, but… the beatless sides of the first 9 Basic Channel twelves. The ones with the percussion and bass dropped out. These were remarkable. Mark & Moritz are living legends. No question, and my respect for them and their contribution is unmeasurable. They created a whole genera that eclipsed everything that inspired them. Remarkable beyond the scope of words. And they were an influence, but… there were dozens of other influences also, and saying that they are the exclusive inspiration (as many have) is unbelievably short-sighted. I was very inspired by experimental stuff like Hafler Trio, field recordings, and electro-acoustic music. I was heavily into sound collage and sound-installation art. Old 78rpm vinyl and Brian Eno. “Music For Eighteen Musicians” by Steve Reich and old Philip Glass records. Old jazz, and even new beat records! I think I was influenced by stuff that Mark & Moritz were influenced by (like Manuel Göttsching’s “E2-E4”). Actually, my first exposure to dub infused techno wasn’t from Basic Channel. It was from Bandulu and Infonet label. Later… some Patrick Pulsinger stuff (iO on Cheap maybe) was influencing me in this direction too. I think the BC stuff was popping up around the same time, but I discovered it after this stuff.
– So do I!
– Brendan Gillen (Ectomorph) suggested it to me because I liked the Bandulu stuff from early 1990’s. The BC stuff that I liked the most was definitely the beatless stuff. Just a hook + FX. At one point, I was denying influence by BC, and this wasn’t actually honest, and zero disrespect to them, BUT… I felt that I had to FORCE people to ask the important question…. “OK then…. if not BC, then what”. It was the only way to do it. It was a psychological ploy that made people dig deeper and investigate, out of respect to the other influences, or they wouldn’t discover those. So sure, BC was an influence, but one of many that were equally influential.
– How did you discover dub sounds production techniques?
– I actually think it was by mistake. In the 1990’s, I was triggering samples with an old Forat/Linn 9000 drum sampler. I had a few of them (they were cheap at the time). I had some old tape echoes like Roland SRE-555, RE-201’s, and Korg Stage Echoes. I also had a big Master Room Spring Reverb and some other similar things. So I was using them because it’s all I had and wanted to make music. All these things were cheap…. nothing like today’s outrageous eBay price. Everyone wanted new digital stuff back then. I got a mint Prophet 5 at Gus Zoppi’s music store on 8 Mile Rd in Detroit in 1987 for $350, and that was VERY high for the time. Everyone wanted DX7’s and Mirages. So I think things sounded dubby more by mistake than contrived. The gear just lent “that sound” to the music.
– The first sessions of DeepChord are very raw and noisy, someone called them “sewer sound”. Where did you get this idea from?
– Well, back then we really liked that. Things were recorded on 8-track cassette, so they sounded terrible to begin with. I liked recording the tracks with DBX NR on, and mixing them down with DBX switched off. Plus lots of compressor abuse. Then… as if that wasn’t bad enough, we would make Ron (Murphy) cut the records with the heat switched off on the cutting head to really rip the groves up. The first time we asked, he was freaked out. Then later, he got comfortable doing it, and one time we were leaving, and he said totally seriously: “You know… I have a blown head in the back… maybe next time we try that and see if you like how it sounds”. We never did use the blown head. I wish we tried it. One time, I went with Mike Huckaby to Toronto to cut a record (one of Mike’s), and it crossed my mind to try this cutting-house. I was asking them questions like: “Now can you cut the record with the heater switched off like Ron does for us?”, and “Is there any way you can really fuck-up the phase for me?”. I think I freaked him out. He said he didn’t want to cut my record, then later he said he would do it but he wouldn’t put his name on the cut.
– How important for you was cooperation with Stephen Hitchell on “The Coldest Season” and “Liumin” albums?
– Absolutely essential. I don’t think I would be making music today without Steve’s motivation and inspiration. I owe him so much. I was basically working a proper job (in customs between US and Canada), and had given up on music as a career. I love it, and always worked on it in my free time, but the days of pressing records and sending demos out were long-gone. But Steve didn’t accept that, and kept me focused and inspired.
– Stephen once told that you were in Hare Krishna and because of theirs mantras you like a repetition in music so much. Is that true?
– Completely true. The Hare Krishnas are more responsible than any musical artist for my musical direction. I had some friends who were involved when in my teens, and started spending weekends at the Detroit Temple (The Fisher Mansion). As time went on, I was spending more and more time there. I was becoming engrossed with it. My involvement lasted about 5 years. I remember the first time I was in the temple, and 200 people were chanting the mantra. Something in my head just snapped after about 15 minutes, and I could feel a flood of endorphins rushing. It was euphoric. Better than any drug. Some kind of kundalini awakening. I couldn’t believe this was possible. I was hooked. These repeating patterns and percussion continued for an hour. Modulating and building speed. And the euphoria kept building. This was my first exposure to anything like that, and was definitely a major influence. When I was making the old DC records, this was my reference point. Anything I’ve got from a record store paled in comparison.
– I`ve read that your favorite book is Sufi author Inayat Khan “The Mysticism of Sound”. Which statements from this one had an impact on your way of thinking about music?
– The concept that sounds can be medicinal. This was mind blowing. Certain tones and chords cause specific reactions in the brain. Certain chords can heal illness, and induce drug-like sensations. This is so underutilized today. Many universities are staring sound-therapy departments finally. This is one of the most underdeveloped areas of medicine. When they put someone into a brain-scan, and play a 40hz tone, their brain floods with chemicals. Why? Why does a 40hz tone do this but not a 50hz tone? Sounds of crickets also have a similar effect that no one can explain. These are very serious things. We’re getting better results from tone generators and singing bowls than new prescription drugs, so why don’t researchers take this more seriously? Probably because there isn’t as much money involved. Vibrational medicine is real… stuff like Stanley Burroughs’ color therapy techniques. “The Mysticism of Sound” opened my mind to these possibilities. I’m proud of the fact that I’m a sound designer and not a musician. My sound design involves this whole science, and this is 1000 times more interesting and beneficial to humanity than writing some trivial song. I always consider the things that I’ve learned in these fields when I make “music”. I try to make “music” that induces positive effects. Mike Mantra also taught me much about this and the use of binaural beats.
– I always felt a deep spirituality in your recordings. Are you a religious person?
– Definitely, but as time goes on… I redefine spirituality. I was brought up in a strict catholic family. I went to church 3 times per week, and when I was old enough for high school, my parents sent me to Arizona to attend school at a monastery run by Carmelite monks. My parents were quite strict about religion. I think I was on course to becoming a catholic priest, and was actually researching these options. My parents were quite hard-core. I think they pushed it so hard, that I eventually rebelled. I had a complete backlash. They were applying this pressure since I was 5 years old, and by the time I got into my teens, I snapped, and this is when I discovered the Hare Krishnas. Today, I think I believe in a vibrational force that regulates things. We’re surrounded by this energy, and it’s all about how we interface with it. How you channel it into the things that you do or create. This is vibrational spirituality.
– “Hash Bar Loops” was based on your experiences from Amsterdam. Where the dark feel of that album did come from?
– When I was staying in Amsterdam, I had a bad habit of sleeping most of the day and wandering around all night. I liked the atmosphere better at 4am rather than 4pm. Amsterdam was a really mystical place after dark. So this was the Amsterdam I was familiar with, and this is what inspired the music. A dark, rainy cool middle-of-night Amsterdam. So this is the picture that was painted in “Hash Bar Loops”. I hardly recognize the place when the sun is out.
– “Sommer” comes with a definitely different energy – light and warm. Did you decide to make a completely different music to “Hash Bar Loops” consciously?
– The only preconceived notion with “Sommer” was to keep things “lighter”, and shorter (song lengths). Really vague notions, and even those weren’t set in stone. But the overall conditions that I was recording the album under… sunny blue skies, balmy 70-degree (fahrenheit) weather, breeze blowing through the studio windows from the beach…. all contributed to the sound. I couldn’t help it. This all got balled-up into the feeling. When I tried to use darker elements, they just didn’t fit. So I guess it was a vague decision, but it really started getting stronger once I was rolling. The name “Sommer” didn’t occur until after everything was recorded. I had this completed work, and it sounded like the conditions around me. So the name was natural.
– How important in your work are field recordings – especially on that new album?
– Essential. I’ve developed some extremely unique ways of processing my field recordings over the years. I actually make instruments from them. Many times, sounds that seem like synths are actually field recordings. They are more than just backgrounds. I don’t think I could make music without them anymore. In the late 1980’s, Robert Rich did an interview with “Keyboard Magazine”, where he discussed “glurp”. It was a term he used to describe a zone where synth-sounds seem organic, and organic-sounds seem synthetic, and the listener can’t tell which is which. This interview stuck with me for 25 years. I try to enter this “glurp zone”. I like stuff that you can’t tell the origin. Synths are boring. No matter if it’s a $9000 one… it still sounds like a synth. Yes… maybe a little more rich sounding, but still a synth. Who cares? Too limiting for what I do. It might be OK for a musician, but not me. So I try to stay away from synths anymore. I’ve had many of the best ones (Waldorf Wave, Matrix 12, Prophet 5, etc, etc, etc), and they all put me to sleep with boredom.
– As you said the tracks on “Sommer” are shorter and also more dynamic. How did you feel with cutting your music to such almost song-like form?
– Still trying to decide about this. “Sommer” was a new experiment. I think I like the shorter tracks. They seem more succinct, and I have to be more articulate because I have limited time to get my point across. But… I recorded a new 12” for Soma last week, and it’s two 12-minute tracks (and those were cut down from 16 minutes each),so maybe I’m having a relapse. I think I’ll have to think about it more over the next few months. I might change how I feel. Maybe it’s better for a full CD, and save the 15 minutes ones for 12” vinyl. But right now, I like the shorter format.
– Terre Thaemlitz released a 30—hours material called “Soulnessless” some weeks ago. Are you interested in releasing music in such huge form as well?
– I don’t think so. I like thinking in 70-minute chunks…. but now…. this has me considering possibilities. Maybe at some point, a box set of my field recordings might be cool. Now you made me think… let see what the future holds. Maybe a 6 CD box set, with the intention of playing 2 at once. There could be 1000 combinations of atmospheres. Like loop track 3 on disc 5, and on another player loop track 2 on disc 1. And listeners can come up with different combinations and post them on a site telling others what combos sound good and what volume levels for each. Food for thought. Steve Roach and I use to talk on the phone, and this was something he use to do in his home with his music. With his drony material like “Atmospheric Conditions” and “Slow Heat”, he use to tell me to play them on different players and combine them. It’s a good concept that should be investigated. Maybe a project that combines more atmospheric stuff on CD and more structured things on vinyl? Meant to be played simultaneously. But maybe people will think it’s too difficult. Not sure.