n only a brief span of time Chicago's Christopher Miller and Jeremy Bushnell, recording as Number None, have diligently expanded dronesmithery into areas where even open-ended words like "free" or "drone" are limiting. From 2002’s first annual report Principles of Sitting to the recent Gold Soundz cassette releases, the duo has created a whole host of unsettling and exciting music. In this interview they drop science on music, politics, time, space, and self.
A lot of your music features the manipulation of drone. What is it about the sound form that attracts you?
Chris: I guess you have to define for yourself what you think the “purpose” of a piece of drone music is: static drones tend to bore me. Typically, I like drone pieces that have a sense of progression or dynamism to them that are constantly evolving within certain confines. I don’t think you need to create a long piece of music in order for it to be engaging.
Jeremy, what’s your take on these shorter pieces?
Jeremy: We’ve put out some short drone pieces on our Nervous Climates EP, and “Inland” on the forthcoming Gold Soundz cassette-release of Lichfields, so obviously I feel like it can be done. The mind-altering, trance-inducing, time-dilating effects of a superlative drone are probably easier to achieve when you’ve got a bigger canvas, so achieving those same effects in a few minutes is definitely a feat. I’ve listened to some pieces that seem to turn time inside-out from the first moment: when the piece ends two or three minutes later you kind of go “wow, that piece really took me someplace.” Something like Deathprod’s Imaginary Songs from Tristan de Cunha is exemplary in this regard. The longest one is about two and a half minutes and they’re utterly beguiling. The little bits of fake exotica on Eno’s Another Green World might be another good example.
Chris: Similarly, I’d hope a drone would have some time-dilating properties as well. In my experience, the chronological distortions induced by a particular piece are not necessarily proportional to its length. One can easily get “lost” or temporally disoriented in short drones as well as in long ones. It may end more abruptly than the listener would like, but to me that’s far preferable to a piece that just doesn’t know when to end—a sin of excess far too many in this “scene” are guilty of nowadays. One of my mottoes is “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” Better a piece that ends too soon than one that overstays its welcome and exhausts its meager charm.
Chris, do you feel that your impending fatherhood will soon alter your concept of time and sanity compared to drone’s ability to do so?
Chris: Recognizing the potency of sleep deprivation as a serious hallucinogen, I have no doubt that the first few years will take its toll on my sense of time, space, and self. Whether it will compare to drone’s ability to do so is anyone’s guess. I find solace in the fact that better folks than I have endured the rigors of fatherhood and remain creatively energized and productive. Neil Campbell is my guide on this one! [see Stylus interview] For a more definitive answer, however, I suggest you check back with me about a year from now!
Since we’re discussing making things outside of Number None, Jeremy can you talk a little about how your other projects, Noah Opponent and Butterfly People, differ from Number None?
Jeremy: All the Butterfly People material, to date, was recorded in an epic two-day session in a Michigan motel room with my collaborator Lady Fibula. It was sort of an experiment to see how much noise people could make with no instruments at all: the complete palette was two microphones, a mixer, two MP3 players, a radio, and a bunch of effects pedals. Lady Fibula and I also sometimes make music under the name Who Loves the Forest, but that’s much gentler: the Butterfly People material started to shape up to be much noisier so it became a different band. Noah Opponent is a persona; the persona that I inhabit when I’m making music. The material that’s released under his name is simply music that he’s made without collaborators; that’s the only difference.
You’re a band that seems able to bond field recordings with your music to create atmospheres that fall somewhere between real / solid and half-illusory. What’s your relationship with this form?
Chris: When we first started playing we spent a great deal of time amassing a pretty substantial library of field recordings. We were very much enamored with the approach of artists like Loren Chasse, and were probably a bit more deliberate back then about trying to activate the latent sonic properties of such recordings. We still use field recordings in many of our pieces, but often they are treated, cut, and looped in such a way as to pretty much divorce them from their original form and source material. Nowadays it’s mostly about drawing upon the bank of recordings that we have instead of trying to record new stuff. Also, we’ve been working more with live instruments and sampled electronic sound sources lately. But who knows? The pendulum could easily swing back in the other direction.
Jeremy: Probably the most recent ones were made on the Yorkshire walks with Phil Legard [Xenis Emputae Travelling Band] last summer during our UK tour. He took us to a small cave and we played some flutes in there, taking advantage of the natural reverb; that was a lot of fun. We also had a little jam using only objects that we found in the woods. Unfortunately our little Mini Disc isn’t ideal for recording a log, so those recordings probably aren’t usable. As my ear improves, the recording quality of our quote-unquote “mobile rig” has begun to leave me wanting; on my wish list would be some better microphones for that sort of thing.
Are you believers that a recorded sound holds elements of meaning beyond the actual sound?
Chris: Are you asking about the psychometric properties of a recording? If so, that's an interesting question—sort of a variant of Phil Legard's psychogeographic approach to recording as XETB i.e. choosing specific places to record in because of the pagan/magical/residual energies there, and seeing how those things filter into music made at a "charged" site.
For example would an abattoir field recording contain elements of absolute horror that weren’t audible?
Chris: Yes, I do believe that a recorded sound does contain some sort of emotional residue of the place or conditions under which it was recorded, and that that residue does produce a certain effect on the listener. I'm talking here about more than a simple emotional or physiological response to a melody (e.g. the delicious melancholy that the melody of Eno's "Golden Hours" always produces in me) or sound (gritting one's teeth involuntarily when someone runs fingernails down a chalkboard); I'm thinking of some sort of trace energy contained within the recording itself.
Having said that let me temper that idea a little bit. First, just because those elemental traces exist doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be felt by everyone to the same degree, some of us are more sensitive to those sorts of things than others, or that they'll be perceived in the same way. We all have our own experiential filters.
Furthermore, though Number None does incorporate field recordings, etc. into our music, it's not done with some sort of magickal aim. I hope that our stuff does produce some sort of emotional or perceptual response, even an altered state at times, but we're far less deliberate about the way we produce sound than a statement of belief like that might imply! There's no arch, Crowleyian agenda to Number None; most of the stuff we produce is the result of misguided experimentation, trial and error, happy accidents, and the effects of creative lubricants!
Jeremy: When we were on tour this March I asked Carlo Steegen (of Hardline Elephants) what was the last piece of music he heard that scared him. He told me about Bob Ostertag's recording of a boy digging a grave for his father, who has been killed by the El Salvadorian National Guard; digging sounds, crying, and a buzzing fly. This recording is available as a free download on Ostertag's site, by the way, if you want to freak yourself out. Even further along these lines we have John Duncan's notorious recording of himself having sex with a corpse. The contexts here are quite horrific—they generate negative energy that seems adequately described by the term "aura." As for how much of that "aura" can be transferred to the listener via the process of recording, that's anybody's guess. I think most people who engage in the practice of magic would say that, yes, recording technology is going to capture some of that aura and will in fact replicate it in playback. This can also be thought about using Bruno Latour's theory of the "anthropological matrix," which describes the way in which indigenous people tend to conceptualise their tools and their interpersonal relationships and their natural world as part of a hybridised, organically bound web. I think it's possible to talk about recording technology as something that works as a part of that web. In short, I believe that a sound has a power and a recorded sound in playback maintains that power. So, although Chris is correct in saying that we don't have a Crowleyian master plan, I do think that adorning Urmerica with recordings made all around America (waves on the Pacific coast, frogs in a Wisconsin pasture, Las Vegas casino-machines, etc) was a way to try, very intuitively, perhaps even clumsily, to charge up the recording with some of this "American energy" that I keep coming back to. Only the listeners can tell us for sure whether they felt it coming through.
Is there a typical recording process?
Jeremy: I think our recording process is always in flux. Sometimes we go more for the straight jam, which has advantages of spontaneity, and sometimes we work more incrementally, which has advantages of craft. Probably most commonly we start off experimenting with textures: Chris will play around with some arrangement of synths, guitar, and pedals until we start to get something that has the qualities that we look for, and once it gets going I’ll record a couple of minutes here and there, more intended as quick snapshots of the molten flow then as proper “takes.” Sometimes I’ll use these snapshots for samples or loops later on, sometimes not. Then usually once we’re happy with the arrangement we’ll use that as the starting point for a jam: Chris will fiddle with his circle of technologies and I’ll try to further fuck it up with the laptop.
Chris: It’s really changed over the years, especially when we began to attempt playing out live, and it still fluctuates pretty radically from one session to the next. Earlier on, we were more deliberate about the way we would create. The goal was to find a sort of recombinant arsenal with a variety of different voices that we could use interchangeably, but that would all cohere into something that we felt “worked”, and then use those voices to try to create a sense of dynamic progression over one extended set. Nowadays we spend much less time fiddling around before we start to record. We usually isolate a few voices that we’re eager to try with one another, “tune” them (I use that term very loosely—perhaps “calibrate” is more accurate) to a point where we think they’re the most compatible, and go. Again, we’ll often do multiple takes of a similar palette, trying to refine as we go. We’ll listen through our evening’s work at a later date, isolate those moments that we’re both pleased with, and trim and edit until we’ve found a piece of some coherence buried within it. We’ll tweak levels, add other voices, and generally fuck about with it until we both think it’s finished.
Has this changed over time?
Chris: We’ve used a number of different recording techniques over the years. Typically we’ll record directly onto Jeremy’s hard drive, sometimes through a live mic but more often running the instruments right in. On occasion we’ll instead record onto minidisc or even a small handheld cassette player, but we’ve largely left that behind. Sometimes we’ll try to record several things simultaneously through different mics and recording devices, and then try to match them up later.
So would it be fair to label Number None as an improv act?
Chris: I don’t think of us as an improvisatory group for the most part, if for no other reason than the fact that neither of us possesses any training or great degree of technical proficiency in the things we use to generate sound. Nevertheless, a shared language has developed between the two of us; a language in part based on our own expectations of music as serious “listeners” over the years, and also from five years spent playing with one another and developing the sort of telepathic sympathy for one another that occurs between close friends. That language does “constrain” us I guess, in the sense that it typically sets up certain parameters or expectations within which we work. Sometimes that’s a really good thing, and sometimes it’s really frustrating. But ultimately I’m grateful for the intimacy and shared foundation from which we’re both coming.
We’ve seldom opened up our own world of sonic experimentation to others, though when we’ve done so, it’s usually felt really good (jams with Jazzfinger, Skaters, and Son of Earth come to mind as successful in that regard). It’s good to remember, though, that in every one of those situations, though the encounter has been entirely improvised, we were familiar with one another both as listeners/fans of each other’s music, and as friends. To me, that “sympathy” creates a really fertile environment for improv to take place in. So again, it’s not so much about “constraint” as a pejorative thing….
Do you think that improv has a set or rules or a vocabulary? And if so, do you feel that can be a constraint?
Jeremy: I don’t doubt that improv might have a language. I’m fortunate enough to live here in Chicago, which has a lively improv scene, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen talented improvisers like Jim Baker, Michael Zerang, Fred Lonberg-Holm, or Carol Genetti perform here. I think all of those people understand “improv as a language” way better than I do. I enjoy what those folks are doing quite a bit, but I feel like my comparative lack of proficiency with that language forces me to approach music from a different direction. My background is really in writing (prose, poetry) and visual art (drawing, collage), and so the “language” I rely on is the language that drives those disciplines: things like juxtaposition, recontextualization, and layering.
Chris: For me, the term “improv” seems to have certain assumptions built into it that may not be entirely applicable to the way in which we generate and manipulate sounds. “Improv” to me tends to imply a) that musicians possess some degree of training and/or technical proficiency in their instruments of choice that they b) may or may not use in a search for novelty or transcendence beyond familiar tropes, styles, melodies, dynamics, etc. in a spontaneous context. Ironically, that search for a means of moving beyond the familiar often produces a shared vocabulary that can grow to be as predicable as the first i.e. new patterns, styles, and predilections emerge that eventually become recognizable to others.
Was 2005’s Urmerica meant to be seen as a political release?
Chris: Yes—not in the “Biko”/”Bullet the Blue Sky” sense, perhaps—I hope we’re a bit more oblique or subtle about what we do, but certainly as an impressionistic form of sonic protest. Much of the album was recorded (or at least originated) over the weekend directly following Bush’s re-election in November of 2004. We were both in a state of such incredible shock and rage, utterly disbelieving and demoralized by the fact that the US had given this asshole free reign to shit on the poor, trample basic human rights, and mindlessly throw US military might around the globe for four more years.
Jeremy: It’s an expression of emotion primarily, but as anyone will tell you who lived through the 2004 elections, the division in this country between the “political” and the “emotional” at that time was for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Some tracks on that album are pure mourning, others are expressions of rage, and still others are expressions of wonder at the strange magic that still perseveres in America. I guess I think of the record as one more salvo in the ongoing trench war between Puritans and Hermeticists that comprises so much of US history. It was hard not to come through the 2004 elections and not feel like that conflict was still very much alive. So, yes, the album was political in its conception, and I think we tried to drill that home with song titles like “Suggestion for a New National Anthem” and the clash of imagery on the red / blue album cover. But the album doesn’t have an agenda per se. I’d hope people would think of it as an emotional album more than a didactic one.
Chris: I hear “Compression and Radiation,” and I remember what a cleansing sort of Reichian therapy it was to record that piece one night. Urmerica is definitely meant to be interpreted as a suite of protest songs, albeit one with an emotive, rather than intellectual, agenda.
I’ve been wondering since I got a hold of that album, what does the Ur of Urmerica signify?
Chris: It's UR-merica, ur being a prefix meaning "primal, original." I guess it's meant to reference both the drone aspects of the sound, drone being what I would consider to be Ur-music, as well as being a pun on the name and notion of America, a concept that both allows for and embraces so many disparate ideological and historical strands. "Urmerica" encapsulates the dichotomy between the idealism of freedom vs. the tyranny and restrictiveness of our current administration and its foreign and domestic policies, the historical realities of quasi-occultish Masonic origins (and its shadowy agenda) vs. the spiritual and artistic liberation achieved by so many religious and ethnic groups, The Shakers vs. Coca-Cola Corp, etc. It's an ideal that went wrong, yet still possesses some potential to reinvent and redeem itself—kind of like Number None, I guess!
Jeremy: I think Chris pegged this one pretty well. Historically, "Ur" was humanity's earliest city (largest city of the 4th millennium BC, in what is today Iraq). Later, the Germans to adopt "ur" as a prefix meaning "proto." It's a fitting prefix for Chris and I, since we like to think of the drone as a sort of proto-music from which all others stem. But in terms of this specific release we were definitely trying to tap in to something primal in the country, the wellsprings that feed both America's creative genius and its manifold sicknesses. Anyone who lives here can feel the tension between these two poles manifesting over and again and again in a cyclical pattern—the Urmerica sessions were ones where we really tried to tune in to that tension and energy and kind of surf it for a while, a process that sent me into a weird spiritual freefall from which I haven't completely recovered.
What inspired you to move from your own material to putting together the Rebis label and releasing two (so far) compilations?
Jeremy: Increasing involvement in the “scene” was highly inspirational here. The more talented musicians one comes in contact with, either face-to-face or via the Internet, the more one feels the urge to get their music out to a broader public. At base, it’s the same impulse that drives one to make mixtapes, CD-R mixes, share MP3s, etc.—doing it this way just is a way to do that sort of thing with some degree of legitimacy.
Chris: The desire to run a label has been a longstanding personal ambition of mine, an ambition that definitely predated any attempts at making music. The primary reason it didn’t happen any sooner was because the funds weren’t available before now. Also, the Internet has made this sort of thing much more manageable. Google searches, websites and Yahoo groups have made it much easier to find manufacturers, solicit advice from other people doing similar things, and find a market for the things you put out. As a tool, it’s been invaluable.
As for the comps, I guess the rationale for them was several fold. First, because they allowed us to release music by many artists we dug. Also, to hopefully provide exposure for artists whom may not have received as much buzz or respect as we felt they were due—so I guess from a desire to help these people achieve a bit more attention and notoriety. Finally, releasing comps with different acts and some sort of conceit helped us to begin to establish an aesthetic as a label, hopefully one that helps to establish certain allegiances or interests without being beholden to or trapped in any fleeting scene or genre.
Do you feel the artists involved ‘got’ what you were after?
Jeremy: I’ve been remarkably pleased with the material the artists have provided us: one of the most tangible benefits of putting together a compilation is getting a great track in the mail and knowing that you’re one of the very first people to ever hear it. We’ve tried to design themes that are relatively open-ended, and part of the fun there is seeing the variety of approaches to the theme that the different artists take.
Would it have mattered if they didn’t get what you were aiming for?
Jeremy: Some of their visions come quite close to what I personally had envisioned, others fall more far afield—but I wouldn’t want a compilation in which all of the performers were working in lockstep to my own personal ideas. There’s no surprise in that, and it’d be less fun.
Chris: We’ve never turned away a contribution from someone that we’ve solicited. If they were asked to participate, it means we had an inherent respect for, and trust in, them as artists. As for “getting” the conceit of either comp, yeah, there are probably some pieces that seem to take the theme to heart perhaps more literally than others, but who’s to say? With the TARDIS comp, it was probably easier since long-form drone pieces by their very nature have a “time-dilating” quality to them. With Lead into Gold, we tried to frame the concept of alchemical transmutation in an open-ended manner, i.e. “pieces that start in one place and end somewhere completely different, or pieces that radically alter their source material.” Take a group like Son of Earth, who can say what their sound sources are? While the piece may appear somewhat static, the way in which they take objects (instruments and otherwise) and eek out such unconventional products from them works for me as well as a piece like W/L’s “Monadnock,” which is much more traditionally dynamic in terms of progression and shifting instrumentation. I’m equally pleased with both contributions. They’re a testament both to the talent and creativity of those artists and to the durability and openness of the conceit itself, I think.
By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2006-07-20