Interview: Robert Stillman

Interview: Robert Stillman

For the past five years, I’ve kept the music of Robert Stillman close by. His album Machine’s Song was one of the first records I reviewed for Rock-A-Rolla magazine. I remember listening to it on the train and feeling as though I’d time-traveled to a century prior: the cymbal and brush snare became great puffs of engine steam, while the jovial organs and wonky pianos  mimicked weekend trips to old fairgrounds and to live-scored silent cinema.

Stillman recently released his beautiful new album Rainbow: in part a return the quaint and curious pastorality of Machine’s Song, and a dedication to those people, places and things that Stillman holds dear. The vinyl edition looks absolutely gorgeous. You can buy it here.

Below, Stillman and I discuss the charm of re-used cassette tapes, relinquishing creative control and a beloved station wagon called Warren.

In terms of instrumentation and hue, Rainbow seems to take you back toward the territory of Machine’s Song, which is the record that originally sparked my interest in your music. What spurred the move back to this sort of sound?

It’s interesting that you’ve made that link. There are definitely similarities between those records.

After Machine’s Song I spent a lot of time working on music I could notate and perform with other musicians, so I made a couple records with different versions of a band called the Archaic Future Players. I wanted to get deeper into this craft of notation, and explore some new sounds that I couldn’t make on my own. That was a really rich, challenging experience.

But Machine’s Song was made, more or less, in the same way I’ve been working since I first got a 4-track recorder in the late 90’s, so this feels like a very intuitive, direct way of expressing myself at this point. At the time I was making the music that went on Rainbow it was clear to me that it was very personal music, so I needed to use a more intuitive process and be responsible for all the sounds, like in the old days.

I understand that the record is centred on dedications to some of the people, places and things closest to you. Did these dedications inform the process of composing these pieces? In other words, are there ways in which these tracks convey the people/things to which they are dedicated?

I think the dedications are pieces of music written for those people/places, sort of as offerings that are suppose to honour them.

In terms of process, I don’t really set out from the beginning to write a dedication, but it becomes very clear whom the piece is for within the first stages, and then in a way the intent changes to getting the song right enough to be worth “giving”, if that makes sense. In some cases that was an enormous pressure, but it feels like a more meaningful motivator than just getting it to sound good.

I wouldn’t think these dedications could convey anything specifically about people or places, although it’s always the listener’s right to hear these things. I’m not sure music can describe anything as specific as a person. But I do think music can convey some feelings I have about those people.

The album is the first to feature your own singing voice, which was recorded as you took a walk through a field with your daughter. I’d love to hear a little more about that walk; what inspired the decision to record your singing this way? What did your daughter think of it?

I started that song “As he walked…” for the artist Mark Garry as part of a solo exhibition he did a couple years ago that incorporated a group of musicians writing and performing together. The version I did for Mark had lyrics that we sang, and the first line “As he walked into a field” is from a poem he sent along beforehand. In my mind, that field in the poem was the one I had been walking along as part of the regular circuit we do along the coast here in Broadstairs. I’d say almost all the musical ideas on Rainbow came during those walks with my daughter, getting ideas and singing through them. For the album I thought it would make sense to bring out the tape recorder out to do a little version of that one with her. So in a way that recording isn’t too different to what we’d been doing for a while, and she was old enough then to start chiming in with a few of her own things. Now she can sing most of the song. But her favourite parts of the albums seem to be the abstract noise sections!

Unless you’d rather keep it secret, could you tell me about that warped musical extract at the end of “Field Of Pops”? I’ve tried reversing it to see if I recognise it, but it doesn’t ring any bells…

That’s the part my daughter likes! That one is a mystery to me: most of those sounds came from boxes of tapes I have in my office- it might have been something I’ve recorded before, or something someone taped off the radio and brought to the charity shop-I’m not sure. I tend to re-use cassettes quite a bit so there is often a surprise or two at the end that makes it to the final cut.

What can you tell me about Warren?

Well, the title of that song says it all, it’s just a blue Ford station wagon but it’s been through a lot and rarely lets me down. There are just some cars that are great and Warren is one of them. I can fit a Fender Rhodes width-wise into Warren’s trunk, which means the car is basically still empty for everything else. You’d usually need a van for something like that, and even some of those are too narrow.

Am I right in thinking that the outro to this track is a sort of musical evocation of Warren’s engine?

Ha ha – no, just some fun with delay feedback. The engine sounds a lot crazier than that these days.

What inspired you to bring the tenor saxophone back to the fore?

The answer to this is similar to what I mentioned before about using the 4-track recorder. I’ve been playing saxophone since I was 11 years old, so I feel like I’m able to express something very directly and intuitively with it at this point, and for these songs, that kind of communication was important.

I went through a fairly long period when I wasn’t playing saxophone much; it wasn’t the sound that fit in the contexts I was interested in, or else I felt I was more needed on other instruments. For various reasons few years ago it started to feel right for it to come back into my life. I don’t mind sharing that a lot of this had to do with a conversation I had with a friend Travis Laplante, who has been playing saxophone for a long time too. Talking to him helped me understand really clearly that this relationship with the instrument is heavier than I thought it was, more about devotion than choice. That got me more interested in creating the contexts for the instrument, even if they weren’t readily apparent. Thinking in this way for Rainbow helped me find some new sounds with the instrument too.

Your live incarnation varies from a one-man band to fully-fledged ensemble. Is it always obvious how best to shrink/expand your music depending on the people involved, and does this process ever change the way you relate to your material (i.e. do you ever learn anything new about your own music by changing the manner of its execution)?

These different ways of performing are often just responding to some circumstance or another, like the availability (or lack thereof) of musicians, instruments, money; it’s always a situation of the gig offer coming along and me saying yes before I know how I’m going to do it, and then figuring it out.

Those times I was playing solo “one-man band”, I would have rather been playing with a real band. I put that together initially as a substitute for a group, and it became something I ended up working incredibly hard at to justify as a valid thing. I’m happy to not do it for a while, even if only for the physical toll it took on me, moving all that equipment on my own all the time.

When I’ve been lucky enough to have a band to play my music with, it’s been extremely rewarding. Recording and playing alone too much can really lead to issues around creative control, and as I get older I feel like I’m getting better at relinquishing that control and letting musicians do what they do best, which is make their own decisions and bring their own personality to the music.

When I’ve had the opportunity in recording to be autonomous and really mainline all the ideas directly to sound like on Rainbow, I’m happy to let it become something else live, whether it’s solo or with a band. Last month I did a show of those songs with a group of great musicians whom I trust, and they were definitely showing me sides of the music I didn’t know about yet, which was wonderful.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of your music is the loose flexibility of volume and tempo; they’re constantly shifting gently, carrying each piece through swerves and dips and ascents. Do these movements in pace and speed represent anything, or are you just following a musical instinct here?

I think a lot of that flexibility comes from making music alone. If it’s just me, I can make decisions very quickly without having to worry about whether someone else is following me. So, as you say, I can kind of follow where it feels like the music needs to go. The nice thing about the multi-track process is you can play something very irregular and spontaneous on the first take, and then build up more things around it with the overdubs to make it sound like it was “composed” all along. It’s definitely possible to create that sound with a band, but it takes lots of rehearsal, and listening. It also helps to teach music from demos rather than scores.

Where do you write and record your music? Is there a time and environment most conducive to your practice?

My writing process is pretty haphazard. I have a little office in my house where I can play Rhodes and saxophone, and make simple recordings. I tend to get ideas when I’m walking to work, and I just try to keep chipping away at them in my head during the day, and then develop them in super-slow-motion at the piano when I get the chance. Once I can play it reasonably well on piano, I’ll generally start making a demo as soon as possible. Lately I’ve also been getting more into sticking the tape recorder on in the room and improvising, and listening back for something that might be worth working up. But like I said, I kind of have no idea how or when I get anything done: when I hear about people who have a really organised, regular approach to composition, I definitely get really worried and jealous.

In terms of recording, most of the albums I’ve made are built up from little recordings here and there with the instruments and spaces that are available. Records just take me forever to make. At one point when I was making Rainbow it felt like all I did was move drums around, record them, and erase them at the end of the day. I suppose it’s always this process of learning what the music sounds like, and then learning to play it, and it’s just really slow.

There’s a real warmth and softness to how these pieces are recorded, which is particularly apparent on “Epilogue”. Could you talk about the process of capturing the music on Rainbow?

I have to say that the sound capture process is pretty mysterious to me, in a good way. Over the years I’ve come to understand a good amount about the theory and practice of it, but in terms of actually making my own music, it still often feels like pure experimentation, and I can rarely recreate the same sound twice. Part of that is because almost all the equipment I use is so odd or broken, and the rooms are always different. That said, I don’t think I could make a record like Rainbow in a studio with an engineer and a really nice desk and microphones and all. I really do support the idea that recording is an art, and there are certainly no “rules” I’ve encountered yet that aren’t worth trying to break.

I’m glad you like “Epilogue”. That was a demo recording made in one of those rare creative zones where everything is working and moving quickly and you’re certain what the next move needs to be. I think the feelings got directly into that recording in a way that would have been tough to capture again if I’d tried to do a better version. So the ‘demo’ made it to the record.

What’s next for you and your music?

I’m into collaboration right now. I just finished mixing recordings that will go onto five “locked groove” LP’s for the composer/turntablist Matt Wright to improvise with; those are being cut later this month. I’m also in a band called Bog Bodies that is three musicians and a 16mm filmmaker and projectionist; rehearsing and performing with them has been a real learning experience for me, and we’ve recorded and filmed a ton of material that we’re in the process of making into some kind of artefact to release next year. I want to record a suite of solo saxophone pieces my friend Chris Weisman wrote for me called BROADSTAIRS. In the spring I’m going to go back to the US to play some shows with my old friends in the band Glass Ghost, which should be a blast. And I would really like to do more shows here with the band I played with last month for the Rainbow record launch (Kit Downes-piano, Tom Skinner-drums, and Lucy Railton-cello)- those three have so much energy, I feel like there’s huge amount of music to discover with them.

Robert Stillman’s website –