Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Interview with Soren Roi

Flood Out, Soren Roi's recent, excellent full-length release on the consistently compelling Handmade Birds, is a thematically dense, dystopian walk through New York. On one level, it's got all the synth sequencing a John Carpenter enthusiast could dream of, but on another, it's firmly rooted in the harrowing reality of nation-wide injustice and authoritarian abuse. That's where the album gets its power: on a track like "Outed," featuring vocal samples touching on tragedies like Eric Garner's police-inflicted murder, the listener is simultaneously repulsed and driven to dance. It's really fucking unnerving actually. "Outed," in particular, evokes the tragic contradiction inherent in a "civilized" American city. Beneath the lighthouse is the darkest jail cell.

Beyond simply being both insightful and intelligent, Soren’s an active participant in New York underground music, having played in the late blackened psychedelic band Rosenkopf, and now booking the weekly Nothing Changes event with Nikki Sneakers. In the last few years, he’s traded his guitar for synthesizers and electronic equipment, and put out two solo tapes and one split on Ascetic House.

During the interview, Soren admits to being more productive with music than ever, having recently provided the "score" for Pieter Schoolwerth's Your Vacuum Sucks, recorded another cassette for Ascetic House, and been working on music he's especially proud of that he's looking to release on vinyl.

Jordan Reyes: Let's start with your role in Nothing Changes.

Soren Roi: Well, Nothing Changes was something that Nikki [Sneakers] & I started up after Wierd Night ended, which was the same basic concept - a weekly party at the same bar with live bands. There was a record label [Wierd Records] that came out of that. When Pieter [Schoolwerth] ended Wierd Night, he left it to myself and Nikki. So we picked it up and it’s been going ever since. Going to school makes it tough to be as involved in it as I have been, but it trades off a bit between the two of us. Nikki has another job now so I’ve been trying to step in and do more. That’s what a partnership is. At this point, I’d say it doesn’t take too much effort to book the event, but doing a weekly party can be stressful. Sometimes we'll run into the issue of not having a week booked, and while skipping is an option, I think it’s important to maintain the consistent, weekly aspect of it. When we run into those situations, we put our heads together and usually it works out.

JR: You guys were both part of the Red Bull Music Academy too, right?

SR: Yeah, Nothing Changes did the event for the Red Bull Music Academy. It was a new experience having money to book things. Our budgets are usually close to non-existent, but we had a budget this time. It was pretty big, but we still had a lot of local acts. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Output before, but it’s a big, primarily techno venue with a really great sound system. I don’t think it actually changed anything about Nothing Changes, though. It’s funny how, with the fast pace of New York, things quickly move by. They happen and then they’re over. “Okay, that was fun, but let’s get back to regular programming.”
JR: I know Gen[esis P-Orridge] lives in New York, but how’d you get in contact with Merzbow?

SR: That was through the guy Adam that sets up the whole thing. He threw it out there that he had partnered with Merzbow before and he put it out as an option. We were just like “Uh…yeah. Let’s do it!” That one actually came pretty easily. It’s funny: when you get into higher levels of booking, everyone has a booking agent or a contact or a fee, so it’s not that hard to get in touch with someone like Merzbow if you know who their booking agent is. In a way, it gets easier as long as you have the money, which is why it was cool to do this project. Normally, we do it at the bar, which takes a bit more haggling and friendship hook ups. In a way, working with Red Bull made it easier.

JR: I became familiar with your tunes through a couple of your tapes on Ascetic House. How long have you been making electronic music? Rosenkopf had some electronic elements too, I guess.

SR: Rosenkopf was my introduction to electronic music - we started it in 2010. I didn’t really know what I was doing to be honest. That project was more about playing live shows. I was playing guitar and we had a drummer. We were a band, but we had electronic elements. When that band broke up, I didn’t really know what was going on so I just started messing around on my own with the gear that I had. Electronic music can be great because it’s something that you can do alone. It’s always a learning process with new gear and software. I feel like every couple months I have a new breakthrough, whether it’s from programming or recording live.

JR: What was your original set up?

SR: I was really big into the Korg Electribe. That’s what we used in Rosenkopf. I was playing guitar, but I was also doing a lot of triggering and a small amount of manipulating live. I’d have to write guitar parts that worked around me manipulating the electronic pieces, which threw a wrench into things. 

SR: The Electribe itself was really great - the sound quality is a little lacking, but it was perfect for my first synth. I almost bought a TR707 because I really wanted electronic drums, but then I was speaking with a friend of mine who makes (laughs) dubstep and he was like “Oh, you should check out the Electribe.” I was a little wary because I wasn’t into the music he was making, but then I checked it out and dug what I could do. If I had gotten the drum machine, then Rosenkopf wouldn’t have had the same synth parts. It was a fork in the road.

JR: I’ve never owned a piece of electronic equipment.

SR: You play music?

JR: Yeah.

SR: What kind of stuff do you play?

JR: When I played in Chicago, I just did solo sets of like dark country, psychedelic folk stuff. I can pretty much play any instrument, though, if I can figure out how to get between whole steps and half steps. That said, I haven’t played that much with other people.

SR: I’m sort of the same way - I’m not musically-trained at all - I’m actually about to take my first music theory class in school next semester. I’ve always been able to jam with people and Rosenkopf was based around that the jamming mindset, figuring stuff out by feel. Now, part of me feels like I’ve lost the ability to play with people. I don’t really know anything about music or how it works or how to understand other peoples’ ideas. At this point in my life, I think I work better solo.

JR: Have you tried your hand at collaborating with other people in your electronic music?

SR: Yeah, here and there. I’ll meet up with friends and we’ll record something they’re doing and I’ll chop it up, or one friend will do the drum parts and I’ll do the synth parts. Electronic music is pretty good for that because you’re running loops and triggering things in and out. Sometimes it brings you out of your element too, especially if you’re working on something that you may not otherwise.

JR: Is making music therapeutic to you?

SR: I don’t know if it’s therapeutic cause I get really anxious, especially when I’m doing something that I think is exciting. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing - it just sort of is. I'll say this: it makes me feel productive in my artistic endeavors. So therapeutic? In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. Something about sitting by myself and working on stuff gives me anxiety, but another part likes it. When I sit down with my gear, hours go by. I’m not even conscious.

Photo by Nikki Sneakers
SR: Electronic music has this element of power because you’re controlling so much at once. Things dip in and out and when you’re playing with one filter, you’re brought to another place. You control so much emotional weight while doing so little physically. It’s different from when I played guitar.

JR: Do you think you could go back to playing guitar at this point? Maybe you still do?

SR: No, not really. At times I think it would be fun, but then others I find the guitar boring. I can do so much more with synths at this point, but who knows? Maybe when I get some of this music theory down, I’ll take up the guitar again. For me, I got to the point in guitar where I was doing a lot of the same things, which is probably the same with synths, but there’s so much range of sound, and rhythmic control and tonal control. You can do the same thing a million different ways.

SR: After Rosenkopf broke up, I was trying to maintain with guitar, but I began to see how much I was repeating notes and sounds - that’s when I realized I needed to move on.

SR: People use loop pedals too, which can give you a bit more of that “powerful” feeling. I never got into loop pedals, even though it’s similar to how sequencing is. With synths, it’s not always about what sounds I can get out of it, but how I can control the sounds in a rhythmic sense. I don’t use a keyboard: I use sequencers. You can pick out a guitar chord in different ways, but you don’t have the same motion of notes you can get from a sequencer, or even a keyboard synth for that matter.

JR: Tell me a little bit about the score you did for “You Vacuum Sucks.”

SR: That was a lot of fun. Pieter from Wierd made that movie. Some other people were involved too, like Nate Young [of Wolf Eyes] and Jonathan Canady from Deathpile. He was communicating with those guys through e-mail though, and he needed someone who could watch the film and do something more specific for what he wanted.

SR: It’s hard to say that I even scored it because it isn’t all that musical - it’s more just weird sounds. It was, however, collaborative. At first I was watching the film, recording stuff, sending it to him, but that was going too slowly. Eventually I just brought my gear over to his house in his living room, started making sounds, and said “Tell me when to stop. Tell when you hear something you like.” That ended up working out well for us. After that, it went quickly. It was a fun experience, but again, I have trouble saying I scored it because I just made a bunch of weird noises on top of it. I’m interested in scoring, though. It's another reason why I want to take this music theory class and understand how to better control emotion with chords and notes.

SR: It’s hard to do a traditional score with sequencers because everything is running on one tempo. If you want to move with the motion of a film, the speed of what’s going on musically needs to ebb and flow with the movie. I needed to figure out how to use the tools that I knew with trying to not overtake the mood of the movie. Timing was very important.

JR: Do you watch a lot of films?

SR: Yeah, I guess I do. I watch a lot of documentaries. In New York, there are a ton of theaters like the IFC theater. I enjoy going to the theater by myself and finding out what’s playing.

JR: Do you find yourself thinking of how your music would go along with movies?

SR: (Laughs) I don’t think so. For the most part, I’d say that you don’t want to think too much about the music in a movie. I actually don’t think about that when I watch a film.

JR: I am curious, though. When I see a film, I’m never really thinking about myself in regards to the movie, but I know that people do see movies through the lens of themselves.

SR: Oh, yeah, well, when I watch a movie, I definitely superimpose myself. I also get a lot of anxiety when I watch movies - I’ll start identifying myself and others. Okay, who am I in this movie? And who is this person? And who is my girlfriend? How does their relationship reflect on our relationship? I was watching Princess Mononoke, which is all about not just being a good person and being good to the world, but doing the right thing. I literally had a panic attack. I was going through a lot of stuff with an old friend of mine. I left the theater and was like “ I have to make things right.” I realized that I had to go and fix some of the things that were going wrong.

JR: Wow. That’s intense.

SR: Yeah, it was intense (laughs). I think it’s interesting. That’s funny. I haven’t thought about that in a while.

JR: You have a couple new tapes, right? And you have something new coming out on Ascetic House?

SR: Well, I just put out the one on Handmade Birds and I have another one, which, yeah, is for Ascetic House. I think the tapes are pressed already. I don’t know when it’s coming out, but it should be soon, whenever the next batch is. They seem to always do bigger batches of things. I was doing the Handmade Birds and Ascetic House tapes at the same time and since Ascetic House does these larger batches of tapes, it’s a good place to try out new things and be more experimental. These two tapes are very different. Normally I like to separate all my sounds and have things as clear as possible, but for the Ascetic House tape, I decided to do it more like a live session.

JR: What else you got going on?

SR: I’ve been working on more music than ever, probably. I really want to put something out on vinyl! I like tapes too, don’t get me wrong, but I’m sitting on a couple things and looking for an opportunity. Ascetic House keeps talking about doing vinyl, but they’re always so busy with a ton of things. It can be frustrating when you record something you really love and want to get it out and share it with people, and I know that in this day and age, you can put it out online. More recently than ever, though, I’ve been making stuff that I’m really proud of and I don’t want to just put it out on a tape or on Soundcloud. I want it to get a proper release.

SR: There are so many tape labels, which is great, but it’s also frustrating. I think someone on a smaller label needs to step up. There are so many great musicians, one in New York, and two in the States. I think all the record labels that were smaller and more accessible five years ago have gotten bigger, as they should. Maybe I’m out of the loop, but there seems to be a lack of smaller labels that are willing to put up the money to do vinyl, which is something that I haven’t thought about it. Fuck it, maybe I should start one.

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