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Tim Hecker

listening to Tim Hecker’s self-described “4 AM mood music” is like walking a yard away from your home and into a fog cloud in the dead of night. In the past few years, the Montreal artist has built a reputation for amassing walls of guitar, radio static, and white noise that has engulfed listeners since his 2003 album, Radio Amor. Hecker continued to turn heads with his plunderphonic tribute to Van Halen on My Love is Rotten to the Core and has also explored minimal-melancholia as Jetone. Stylus first caught Hecker after he performed with avant-metal band Isis to close the Bleeding Edge Festival in Saratoga, California last August. The conversation was later continued by phone and e-mail, where his new album, Harmony in Ultraviolet was discussed.

Do you consider your work to be “ambient”?

I was just asked this. I don’t really try to fit into any particular movement. Those things feel alien; I’m outside a lot of those things. I’m not really rock, I’m not really ambient, I’m not really new age, I’m not really metal or goth or church music. But somewhere in all of those things, there is a truth in there. I find that those titles are constraining.

Was your performance with Isis improvised?

It was an opportunity to present the work in a different context than on a studio recording. I mean, honestly, live performance is second fiddle to studio work—that’s my primary means of expression. I came here because it was a great way to get my music out and see part of the world that I haven’t been to for awhile. In all honesty, I’m not a “performer” per se.

Do you believe that it worked out well tonight?

I enjoyed it, and it was something new for sure. It was a nice opportunity to play in this garden theater, it’s totally amazing. Any place where people are quiet and listening closely is a good thing. It’s hard to find people who actually take time and listen, and don’t have a two-second attention span.

I’d say that many attention spans were affected by iPods.

I’m planning to get rid of my iPod. In terms of audiophile quality, it sounds like shit because everything is in a 160-bit rate and it’s totally meaningless. It cheapens the work. One could argue that the work format was already cheap based on the essence of live recording as cheapening. But bit-rate degradation and compression cheapens it even more. And then having infinite selection (of songs) becomes meaningless. You don’t value what you have. I remember when I used to have just five audiocassettes and I loved them. I took turns listening to them for a really long time; it was a really rich experience. But I don’t want to be nostalgic.

What do you have to say is the best thing that a computer can do to a guitar?

A guitar’s just an input sound that can be transformed in so many ways. You can transform a guitar to sound like a Kenny G saxophone, or a blizzard of white noise and death-metal howls. The guitar has such an ingrained sound that means so many things, if you stick with tones that go from clean and acoustic to something metal. But for my purposes, you can make the same sounds going through a computer and a guitar pedal and distortion with a flute or a harpsichord as if you could (with) a guitar. The guitar itself is not really that interesting to me on its own.

Have you heard from guitarists on your work?

My friends play guitars and some of the remixes I’ve done over the years have been guitar-based. [Harmony in Ultraviolet] has a lot of dense processed-guitar collages that I played myself. But I don’t want it to be seen as “guitar music” or “indietronica.” I’m not interested in turning to any context of traditional rock quartets and things like that, or even post-rock.

Let’s go back a bit. How did you get into producing electronic music?

It came from failed bands essentially. I wanted to play in a band, and have a musical rock band or some sort of progressive form with friends, but it persistently failed in the sense that it just never worked out in terms of forming a cohesive relationship with other people. So I took to buying a sampler and started essentially looping the instruments like the drums and basslines. People liked it, so I did some studio work myself. I was always interested in the studio art. When I got a computer and used MIDI with a sampler, I started transforming those samples. I was getting pretty interested in electronic music at that point also. That transfiguration process slowly went to an extreme, I suppose.

Are you classically trained?

No, a very suburban, musical background. I played trumpet and ukulele in elementary school, but that’s the extent of my classical training. I can understand sheet music, but my sheet music was the guitar tabs in recreating Whitesnake and Van Halen guitar solos, that was my form of classical music.

Did those Van Halen solos come full circle in your record, My Love is Rotten to the Core?

That’s an example. I’m just trying to say that I came from a very suburban music background, and my interest in progressive forms of music came from developing an interest in art in all forms. I’ve always been interested in far-out music and at the same time, I grew up in a suburban rock context, I suppose.

How did you get into using radio broadcast noises for your music?

It came by messing around with studio explorations and composing pieces where I found that white noise is really amazingly rich and detailed. White noise from a radio source—that you are modulating by tuning in and out of channels—is totally hypnotic. It developed that way naturally. White noise became a huge component of my compositional process.

So it’s mainly the radio sound you’re going for, not so much the information being broadcasted?

I like keeping the contextualness of it with Vietnamese or some Latin American news broadcasts. It’s really just below the surface of being able to be decoded so that the context really weighs heavy in the work. I don’t like textuality and lyricism and talking or stand-up or slam poetry to that extreme. I really like to have that significance buried.

I’ve read quite a bit of press on Montreal’s electronic music scene. When you moved to that city, did you notice a “scene”?

It was really in the germination period when I was there and active. There have always been people who did electronic music; it was nothing new. There’s a deep tradition of people doing musique concrete, musique actuelle, up to guys like David Christian in the mid-90’s who was doing it on his own and the minimal-techno scene I guess. It wasn’t just pulled out of thin air. It’s been a long trajectory. It’s just that larger indie media tended to focus on it at a specific point as if this scene blossomed out of nothing. But that really wasn’t the case.

What were some of the local electronic sounds or artists that appealed to you when you came to Montreal?

I’d have to say that it was most of my friends at the time who were doing [experimental] music like that. It’s not just a Montreal thing, it’s a regional thing. I had experiences and relationships with people in Toronto, Vancouver, and then also in the States, like in Boston and New York. We live in a globalized culture. The notion of a localized scene is true to a certain extent but it’s also missing a lot of the point because people are more connected in broader ways. Taste and aesthetics are super-specialized niches now, and I find that people develop really tenuous networks that are a lot wider geographically than they used to be.

How did Jetone arise?

That was the transfiguration of sound that I was talking about. I started doing percussive, rhythmic stuff and I started with broken-beat, scattery Autechre-inspired stuff (and moved) to more pulsing, 4/4 stuff. The textural stuff interested me a lot and I did a lot of the techno records because I found it more fruitful and time is limited—I didn’t want to have 20 different musical personalities or projects. I wanted to focus on one.

What made you decide to begin releasing work under your own name?

In doing some of the techno stuff—a lot of the reprised tracks, like some of the pauses between tracks—I found that were the most charming for me in terms of making them and listening to them. At the same time I was doing the techno tracks, I was doing tons of late-night pieces before I went to bed. After I finished some of the Force Inc. record, I accumulated tons of those (tracks) and I just assembled, I wouldn’t call it ambient, but a kind of “power-ambient” album that was Haunt Me. It just happened organically with a local label called Alien8.

Haunt Me also has some curious moments like what sounds like a recording of you watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

That’s right, there was a pizza shop around the corner, and it was a winter night of going in for a 99-cent slice and it just made sense. In talking about burying things, that [recording] was just barely there. You have to listen really close to know that was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

How would you describe your new album, Harmony in Ultraviolet?

It’s a continuation of my older work, but it definitely has the heaviness of the last record, Mirages. But it’s more melodically composed than the earlier stuff. It’s definitely in the trajectory that I’ve been working on for years. It’s not a 180. I wasn’t interested in reinventing the wheel just to show versatility or athletic ability. I was just working on the song-craft of what I’ve done before.

There were a few times when I listened to your new record and stared at its cover art. There are dozens of black and white photographs of what look like communist party members. When I add that strong image to the music, I often perceive the music as mourning something. Is that what you tried to evoke through your music? And where did you get that image for the cover art?

The image was taken by me in Italy of an anti-fascist memorial in Bologna. I used the image mostly on the basis of its visceral qualities, but also how it fits with the music on a bunch of levels. It also made me think of some of the portrait work or the “October” series by (painter) Gerhard Richter.

Aside from your new album, are you working on other projects?

Right now, I’m preparing a vinyl edition of Harmony in Ultraviolet for a label called Conspiracy and I’m doing a 10-inch on Audraglint. I’m preparing for an installation in Toronto and I’m going to do a concert there. There’s a bunch of concerts I’m doing in Chicago and a few other places, and I’m starting a doctoral degree, so it’s a pretty busy time.

What is this installation that you’re working on?

It’s going to be a neo-pagan, outdoor kind of a noise intervention. It’s going to maybe be 10 or 15 speakers hung from trees that are spread out and allow me to do a spatial, melodic composition outside of an art gallery in Toronto.

What sounds will come from the speakers?

Some will be noise generation; some will be melodic pieces. There will be random permutations so it would play never-ending, different iterations of itself. It’s a form of public art and intervention. It’s like a mediation on noise in the urban landscape and the lack of melody in public space.

You mentioned you're starting work on your doctorate. What are you focusing on?

It'll be the cultural history of sound. It's a bit early to say because it's two years off from any serious work on it, but it would be the rise of the industrial revolution, machines in America, and the genesis of the non-stop industrial din of modern cities.

One last question: did you ever hear from Van Halen?

No, never in the slightest.

Related Links
Tim Hecker
Kranky Records

By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2006-09-27
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