There are moments of sudden and wonderful alignment on Somi. At 2:07 on the title track, a guitar string and a key are struck simultaneously. A harmony chimes out: a nervous, half-dissonant slant, like a vocal uplift at the end of a sentence. Unsure. Hurt, perhaps. These moments largely occur through serendipity. Taylor Deupree orchestrates the behaviour of each individual instrument on the album, but not the interplay between them. As such, the seven tracks of Somi are constellations of beautiful accident – fateful collisions of sounds just passing through.
I’m grateful to Taylor for gifting his time and energy to my questions, particularly when, like a true music journalist, I seek answers from processes that likely drift free from succinct rationale. Somi is out now on Taylor’s own 12k label, and you can also hear/buy it on BandCamp. Below, Taylor and I discuss the music and rhythm of nature, his interest in generative music and the motor of a Roland Space Echo.
I understand that Somi consists largely of manually-generated loops, creating by playing the same idea over and over again. I don’t often hear the word “loop” applied to the principle of manual repetition, perhaps because it implies an exact replication that can’t be achieved through physical performance. What led you to utilise this method of looping? Did working this way teach you anything about your relationship with repetition?
I’ve used traditional, electronic, loops in my music for a long time. I’ve experimented with nearly every hardware looping device commercially available as well as programming my own. Repetitions in this manner have been so important to me, compositionally, over the years. During the past 5-10 years as my music took a much more organic and natural turn I found myself always trying to slightly mess with the timing of my loops to make them more imperfect with little variations and waverings. It just occurred to me that perhaps the best way to get natural, imperfect loops would then be to make them by hand and just rely on my own timing inconsistencies to give me the variation I was looking for. As I strive to move further away from the computer when I make music, this method really worked for me on a lot of levels.
In an interview with Headphone Commute, you state that you can’t start a new record until you have the title. I’ve also seen that Somi was inspired by a set of photographs (which also appear in the physical edition of the record). Which came first in this instance? The title or the photographs?
Somi is actually my first solo record that was started before I had a title for it. I really struggled with this for a while, and throughout the nearly two years it took me to finish the album I went through a lot of titles. It was initially called Stil.2 or perhaps Sti.ll as I knew it would have a link back to my album Stil.. But it grew to really want to be its own album, it’s own thing, as opposed to simply a “sequel.” Having an album title helps me focus my ideas and concepts throughout the writing process. Somi was written during the most personally difficult period of my life and I was having trouble wrapping it into a whole as I progressed through it. There’s a lot of darkness in the album, whether it’s apparent or not. In the end, I wanted a rather ambiguous word, and in this case, a made-up one. Somi vaguely reminds one of the root “somni” or “sleep”…but it’s not quite.
I’ve been trying to identify the shapes in the photographs. They look like plant branches of some sort. Perhaps reflected in a pool of water. If you’re willing, could you talk about what the photographs depict and where/when you took them? How did these images feed into your ideas for the music?
Without giving away too much or taking away any mystery, or being too literal, they are simply plants in the snow, that’s where the stark background comes from: the snow. Conceptually, relating to the music, they sort of depict an idea where the round/dot parts of the plants refer to the loops, or main ideas, or seeds of the songs as they lay among other loops and seeds in a sort of random way to create the whole.
The process of writing Somi was really an additive one, which is a bit different for me as well, as my composing and editing style tends to be quite subtractive. I build up a lot of layers and start carving away holes and spaces. However, with Somi the “loops” I was making were all one single note, not phrases or patterns, but literally a single press of one key or the strike of a glockenspiel. So the tracks started one note at a time, repeated at a pre-defined interval as I looked at a time. Then moved on to a 2nd note, with a different repeating timing, then a third, and so on, and built up from there: very very sparse at first and gradually becoming something by the end of the writing day. Much like the seeds of a plant, I suppose.
Oh, there’s absolutely a lot of serendipity on the record. In fact, one of the rules I had when I was laying down these loops note by note was to play the particular note at the specific time I was supposed to, no matter what else was happening from previous tracks. I was very rigid about that. Often in compositions you want to strategically place notes in and around other notes, but for Somi I specifically let them fall where they were supposed to based on the timer I was writing to, regardless of what what was happening at the same time. Of course, with such sparse music it wasn’t so much of a problem of crowding, but there are moments of note clusters and interesting interactions that occurred by accident. I use a lot of randomness in my music but ultimately I am in control of it and can edit or remove as I see fit. I’m not such a stickler for process that I will let that take precedence over something that isn’t working in a musical, or emotional way.
And because the technology and composing and sound design are all sort of happening at the same time in the studio as I create sounds and write, it just becomes an environment where happy accidents and experiments are constantly happening. It can’t really be separated. It’s not traditional songwriting in that sense.
Maybe I’ll want to put an electric piano into a looping pedal… OK, I make some notes, make a nice loop, but then let’s see what happens if a second, asynchronous loop comes in an octave lower, and let’s run that one through this or that chain of effects, and then take the whole thing and record it onto a handheld cassette recorder, and then mic the cheap built-in speaker on the recorder and record that.. and that becomes the track that gets recorded in Pro Tools for the song. With a process like this, you don’t quite know what you’re going to get until you get it. Serendipity is something you rely on.
In that Headphone Commute interview, you also mention that you feel an affinity with Eno’s idea of creating “vertical music”. The listener is lowered into a sound world in which beginnings and ends have little importance. This certainly feels true for Somi; I sense that these pieces are mere snapshots of particular circumstances, all of which exist beyond their fade in / fade out. What is it you enjoy about generating music that transcends the borders of its documentation? Does this relate to your interest in photography, in how it documents a circumstance that ultimately stretches before and after the moment of its capture?
I actually don’t think of photography as much as what comes before and after its capture, but more specifically as stopping of time. The freezing and reliving of a precise moment in time. Related to this, as you said, I like music that has no beginning or end, that just sort of exists. From far away it seems like a “song” but you can keep going deeper into it and reveal more details and there’s a whole world inside this small bit of time.
Many of my songs and albums have really been mere snapshots of what could be much longer, generative pieces, and I’m fascinated by Eno’s app-based releases and have toyed with that idea myself, specifically with friend and collaborator Kenneth Kirschner who has done a lot of that work, that he terms “indeterminate.” We were actually fairly close to working on such a piece/app and nearly had the App programming done with another collaborator, but it all fell through.
While I love this idea, in concept, I really dislike the idea that this work would have to be listened to on a smart phone, such a soulless device, such an evil device in so many ways. I really dislike that relationship, although at this point it seems the only way to release such a generative album is to tie it in with some specific piece of playback technology.
You worked with a very small set of instruments for this release: electric piano, glockenspiel, DX7, handheld cassette recorder. Did you consciously constrain yourself to this palette? If so, what was it about this instruments/devices that appealed to you?
Yes, I’m constantly restricting myself to a smaller set of instruments when I work, simply because I have quite a lot of options in my studio and it can get overwhelming. While I couldn’t create my art without the use of technology it’s very easy for the technology to get in the way. Too many choices isn’t a good thing. I’ve come to grips that I can’t curb my love for gear and studio equipment so I simply restrict myself to a smaller set of it when I work.
For Somi I knew I wanted it to consist of sounds with a piano characteristic. That type of envelope and form. I love my Hohner Pianet electric piano so it was a pretty easy choice when I started experimenting for the album. Glockenspiel and similar bell-like sounds from the DX7 complemented the electric piano well. There’s a bit of guitar on the album and a Nord Lead synth here and there as well.
When I had most of the songs done with these instruments there was something about it that was too “clean” for me, that wasn’t echoing the emotional difficulties I was having in my life at the time. This is where the cassette recorder came in, as a way to beautifully mess it all up and add noise and distress.
There are some beautiful crackles and warbles on this release. In particular, I love the crumpling distortion on “Slown” – it reminds me of firelight. How did you attain the various different fidelities and states of decay on this record?
There’s really a whole host of gear and techniques on the album responsible for the noise and crackles. A lot of it is the cassette recorder and its built-in speaker, but also a really lo-fi reel-to-reel machine and its built in speaker. These are not clean devices, so there’s a lot of distortion, but in a very gentle way, I think, not like an overdrive or fuzz pedal or something, but a really organic distortion or break-up. On one song I mic’d and recorded the motor of a Roland Space Echo, as well as some of the switches on its front panel. I also don’t always clean up a recording or mistake. Maybe I’ll knock the microphone by accident, or a bell mallet will hit the floor. If these sounds add something some sort of sense that this is all happening in a real environment, I’ll keep them in.
What other music have you been listening to lately?
I just discovered the music of John Luther Adams the other week, and really quite love it. Especially Songbirdsongs. I love how nature is transcribed as music, in an almost literal way. Always listening to vinyl in the house during family time, with the collection ranging from all the stuff I bought in the 80s to whatever new music I’ve bought, like the new Eno record or test pressings of the upcoming Federico Durand on 12k.
Other than Somi, what’s next for you and your music?
I actually went on a writing spree a few weeks back. Somi took so long, and was a very difficult album for me to do that I wanted to work on something more spontaneously and I have nearly a whole album finished. There are a couple of labels interested, and I’m hoping it can come out later this year. Although, I also want to make a very limited edition cassette release for my possible tour in Japan in October. So, we’ll see.
I”m also in the middle of a new album with Marcus Fischer for a label in France that’s going well and very far into a new project with my dear friend Corey Fuller (from the band Illuha), called Ohio. Hopefully that will see the light of day soon.