Interview: Simon Lomax

So your “Council of Nine” label is back up again.

It is indeed, yeah – after what feels like a very long break actually.

Would you take me through what’s been happening in this break?

Where to start! I’m one of the co-developers of a specialized music teaching system which, funnily enough, is called the Music Skills System™. It uses a lot of rather interesting accelerative learning techniques and quite a few ideas that we have developed ourselves. Which means that people get to learn to play musical instruments very quickly – they usually go from beginner to band proficient in under a year. I’m one of the main developers for the system, and it seems to be starting to catch on. We’ve got quite an unusual approach but it works so well we have just this last year started a broader educational study that is giving us some fairly interesting results.

So what is this approach?

Ah, well they’re top secret and the other co-developer would shoot me if I told too much! He is keen not to have it copied and watered down. But here is the general idea any way. We started by throwing out the books on traditional teaching methods and asked ourselves, “what has to be there for someone to be incredible”. At first all that did was cause us to have more complicated questions to answer around how, why and even when.  Because a lot of the techniques we use now aren’t normally found in music teaching. Some would be recognizable in the field of elite level sport coaching, the world of bio-mechanics and a host of diverse areas. But it’s a really nice system and it’s really wonderful to be involved in it, and although it’s certainly taken a while to get it up and running, it’s definitely catching on – to the point where in January this year, one of our students was one of the finalists in the Young Drummer of the Year competition in the UK. So it certainly works. But saying that, my passion musically has always been the ambient and atmospheric stuff, and that’s always there – if not in the foreground.

You say it’s “always there” – your last album .74 was released in 2004 wasn’t it?

Yeah, 2004/2005. So it was a fair while ago. I can’t remember who said it – I think it was a fairly popular musician like George Michael or something – he said that you need to live enough between albums to have something to say. And obviously I’m not “saying” anyway because it’s all instrumental and atmospheric, but I definitely feel that I need to experience something to be able to put that across – just because of the way I write and what I write about I suppose.

So do you feel that your four or five years away has fuelled you with the experiences and emotions to produce this new record then?

Yes, absolutely. It seems like the right time to bring it out. I’ve started to spend a bit more time in the studio on that. I do a number of other projects in the studio too, and I also do library music for people like BMG and Universal, so it’s nice to get some time to focus on the new record. The way that I write music, and I think this is the same for a lot of people, means that there has to be something to write about. It’d be nice to create an atmosphere and explore that, but for me it tends to be much more visual. I need to have a particular image or scene that I use visually to write about. So I’m “capturing” something I’ve seen. For example, I did the E-Live festival in the Netherlands, and as soon as I came back from that I was straight in the studio again and really captured some of the visions of being in that place – the sights that I’ve seen and the feel of the place as well. When I was hiking through the French Pyrenees as well – the track “Isolat” on .74 is very much about that sweltering heat, and that sense that you get this “humming” in the air at that kind of temperature. That’s something I was very aware of when I was writing that track.

I can actually picture that sound you’re referring to on “Isolat” – it runs through the whole track. What about the new record? Are there any particular visuals fuelling that?

Well it’s been a very different period of my life actually. I won’t bore you with the details of that, but there have certainly been a lot of changes – not only in my personal life, but also in the types of places that I’ve been. So the kind of atmosphere that I’ve been creating in this Zone of Cold album – I’ll have to wait and see if this comes across to the listener as well – it’s like a story exploring that idea of there being this “zone of cold”. To me, that’s a concept very much about a down-time or a time of reflection. Not necessarily stagnation, but that kind of plateaux that occasionally comes in life, and the movement or change in direction. So the narrative of the album should really reflect that. I hope that comes across. It’ll be interesting to see if people pick up on it.

In terms of textures and dynamics, does it pick up from where .74 left off? How does it differ from your previous work?

The difference between the way that I write and other ambient composers is that some ambient music is very much an atmosphere that gently evolves, ebbs and flows, rises and falls. But with me, it’s about a piece of music which has some form of movement to it. I don’t know whether it’s because I get bored easily. I always get to that point where I’m like “right, something needs to change here, something needs to happen, something needs to evolve”. And I think that the new album does hark back to Telluric Waves – the pieces are almost like conventional songs in terms of the structure and form of it, if you get what I mean by that.

As you say, you do approach your music in a different way to a lot of musicians. I mean if you compare your stuff to someone like Steve Roach, who creates 70-minute pieces that barely move within themselves…

Beautiful stuff, yeah. I very much like his album Slow Heat. You put the album on and you’ll get a particular theme that will last 10 minutes or something, that just gently rises until its repeated again after that. I think that in itself is very skilful. Steve’s very good at that.

I think he calls it “sonic incense”, which is quite an interesting way of looking at it. I can see how your stuff is like a conventional song – but it’s just that the atmosphere is always changing. There’s more of an explicit narrative to it.

Yeah, perhaps comparing it to a conventional song is a bit misleading – it doesn’t have an intro, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus. There’s a time and a place for it, just not in the ambient music world!

What kind of environment or atmosphere do you tend to record your music in?

I’ve got a really nice studio here that I use. Like a lot of people, I tend to write a lot of it in the early hours of the morning or very late at night, so you’ll often find me here at two or three in the morning. I don’t know whether it’s because there are less distractions, or perhaps the atmosphere is perhaps just a bit more conducive to writing music. So yeah, sometimes I’ll find myself awake at four in the morning, drive over to the studio and start playing with some sounds and start capturing the feeling of that time of day. I think that definitely comes across.

Does that also reflect in the environment in which your music sounds best? Is there a particular listening environment that brings out the best in your music?

That’s a really interesting question actually. I think nowadays a lot of people will listen to music on an iPod through headphones. Certainly I don’t create a lot of music using headphones – there’s a lot of layers and detail in the type of music I create and in the music of similar artists. There’s a lot of depth to it, so if you’ve got a system that really captures the best of that, it can be really good. I do enjoy listening to music on the main monitoring system we have in our studio – it sounds fantastic because you really get all of that exquisite detail in the music. I think that really does typify ambient music anyway. There are so many layers to it, and you can let it wash over you if you want to, but if you want to focus in on it then there’s a lot more detail to be found. I have been known to listen to ambient music in the car actually, but wouldn’t necessarily advise it! I think it’s fine – but in terms of keeping yourself alert and awake, perhaps it’s best not to.

Yeah, I guess it’s a bit like a sedative. Back to this new album – it’s being released under your own name. Is there any reason why you haven’t reignited Maitreya?

It feels like a good time to bring it out under my own name this time. I’ll be quite straight about it – there are quite a few other artists that use the name Maitreya, and I thought it’d be good to differentiate myself from death-metal and hip-hop. I’ve been using that name for about 15 years. So it’s with fondness that I say farewell to the name, but I think it’s fine to bring something out under my own name this time. I do understand that “Maitreya” has a certain mystique about it, but I think it’s the right time to do it. Quite how I’d quantify that I couldn’t tell you, but it just feels right.

So is Council of Nine going to be for your releases exclusively, or are you planning to take other artists on?

I’d never say never to taking another artist under our wing. The intention at this stage is to release my own music, and use it as an outlet to get my music to the people that want to listen to it and enjoy it. But if we found the right artist then we’d be more than happy to take them on.

Are you releasing all of your old albums on CD too?

They’ve already been released – they’re still available. Some of them are quite limited stock I believe. I’ll have to check with our distributors. Although recently I noticed that you can buy some quite expensive imports of .74 – I think there’s a copy going for as much as $40 in the US, which is a lot of money for a CD of course.

As a final question – who do you enjoy listening to? Are there any really prominent influences for your music?

It’s quite varied. I play a number of instruments, so I seek inspiration for different instruments from different artists. I’d listen to anything from Thrice through to Elbow – those more conventional kind of artists. Even with something like that, what I look for is an atmosphere or a feeling that provokes something visual. Certainly with something like Elbow you can find that, and within the lyrics of the songs as well. But in regards to ambient and atmospheric music…a number of different things really. I’ve always been a great admirer of Biosphere – particularly around the time of his albums Substrata and Cirque, which I think are two of my favourite albums. And again, I just think that the atmosphere that’s captured in that is just masterful. I also really enjoy Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s The Pearl – that’s perhaps my favourite albums of all time, and gets a spin at least once a week. 

I’ve got their Plateaux of Mirror album actually.

Ah, I invested in that one recently. It’s not one that I’ve been that familiar with. I think that really hints at the potential they had, which they then fully exploited with The Pearl. There are also a few tracks on the Gattaca soundtrack by Michael Nyman that I think are just absolutely exquisite, and started my interest for a little exploration with using strings in my music. It’s something I’ve explored on previous albums, and something I plan to explore in more detail very soon. 

Will we see that on the upcoming album?

It will be on something a little bit different after Zone of Cold. Zone of Cold is very much in tradition of my previous albums – very atmospheric, synthetic and elemental samples. But I think this is a separate project that demands its own exploration at a later date.

Council of Nine

Music Skills System