Trilogy of Change: Tectonic / Melancholia / Stelliferous (2017)

Part 1: Tectonic

Following The Ears Have Walls, I continued my renewed interest in playing electric guitar, and the new potentials I was discovering in recording, using the Reaper platform and experimenting with various FX.

I am self-taught in everything I do, and I’m sure many who learn this way will agree: it’s a process that requires a great deal of time, focused attention, trial & error, problem-solving – you are piecing information together out of nothing, often taking a circuitous route only to come full circle to arrive at something much simpler.  But, as the tired cliche continues to gasp: it’s the journey, not the destination…(wheeze…)

One pivotal ingredient in these recordings was that I had on extended loan some of my neighbour Ross’ most coveted musical gear: an excellent guitar amp simulator unit called The Pod, and an electric bass guitar. I hadn’t played electric bass since the 80s and it has always been a favourite instrument, so naturally to feel its muscle under my fingers (after all those years of ukulele delicacy) inspired a new kind of muscle in my playing, which in turn influenced how I shaped the music that became the Tectonic album.

In 2017, there were other pivotal ingredients that would shape the music, and would result in a trilogy of overlapping albums.  I had been living alone, except for when my kids were with me, at the same house for about 10 years.  The house was a simple shack, open living space with three small bedrooms, and an amazing deck that looked out over the wide mouth of the Huon River, where it merges with the D’Entrecasteaux Channel (look it up: SouthEast Tasmania) and the vast ocean beyond. 

Main living space, with my work area in the far right corner

This house had been my refuge and recovery from severe depression, and it had been where my kids had spent half of their childhood for their first ten years.  There were three beautiful beaches within walking distance, plenty of bush, kelp forests around the shoreline, and a couple of special neighbours who became extended family.  I had plenty of solitude, and spent many hours on the deck, gazing at the water, playing music or just reflecting, occasionally graced with the presence of a lone seal or pod of dolphins cruising past, a sea eagle overhead or a bandicoot scuttling to cover.

My partner and I had begun our relationship a couple of years prior, and she and her young son had moved in with me sometime in 2016.  By 2017 it was clear we needed more room.  Rentals are rare in our neck o’ the woods, but in mid-2017 an amazing house became available, plenty of room, in a secluded bush setting, wildlife at the doorstep – we had a look, met the landlord (who chose us immediately out of about 40 applicants) and within three days we were signed up and packing.  It was one of those rare events of everything having a feeling of absolute “rightness”, and it was fast.  My partner couldn’t wait to get there, so she went first and began the nesting process.  For me, despite knowing the change was right, I needed to take time to transition. 

Often in my life I’ve had to make abrupt, radical shifts from one reality to another, sudden and life-altering switches of channel, and I’ve developed many skills for riding those changes, but this was different.  Living in that house was the longest I had stayed in any house – ever.  I needed to fully acknowledge all the life my kids & I had experienced in the old house, to properly say goodbye to every nook and cranny that we had filled with our Living and Loving together.

The empty vessel, mid-Tectonic sessions

I gave myself about two weeks to gradually extract myself from the house.  All our belongings had been moved and the house was gutted – a perfect clean space in which to create.  I understood that now the music I was creating was directly connected to my transitioning.  I kept my recording gear there, a mattress on the floor and some bare essentials for food, worked late into every night and straight back to it every morning.  This is my preferred creative space – an isolated, minimal environment, devoid of clutter and distraction, a monastic austerity that allows me to completely dissolve into the creative flow of whatever I’m focused on – food and sleep become ripples in a continuum that is only about the creative work. 

This is the state of total immersion I always crave: sense of self evaporates, the feeling of creation expands and fills everything.

Tectonic was my final recording in that house.  It was an initial response to the first impacts of change and transition, deep turbulences, sudden expansions, seismic reverberation and the shifting of subterranean layers – Tectonic.

Some useless trivia:  When we first looked at the new house, the landlord was showing us the attic room in the outside studio / shed, which he had been using for storage.  I noticed an enormous pink antique-looking bass drum in the corner and asked him if I could borrow it for recording.  He promptly gave it to me, along with some very battered cymbals, saying they’d once belonged to a Hobart jazz band in the 50s.  I first recorded it on what became the track Old Mate Paradox, Restless & Lumbersome. The bass drum (and the cymbals) appeared on many other recordings thereafter (you can see them in the photo above).  The Pacific Gulls on Wheeling were recorded from the deck of the old house.  Smoke And Mirrors was a piece I’d recorded as a basic demo back in 2002 – I didn’t have the original tracks to edit, so I sampled the first bar of the drum machine on the demo, looped it and reconstructed everything else from scratch, adding new electric guitar parts.  The final track Mastadon, is a riff my son came up with (his first time playing a bass, age 10). The cover image is a detail of bark on a piece of firewood – I chose it because it looked geological, like tectonic plates.

Part 2: Melancholia

Often when I’m exploring some new (for me) element of my musical process, other ideas will emerge on a tangent, simultaneously but not in synch with the initial focus (like an old-time circus plate-spinner managing his row of plates).  For instance, while I was finishing Tectonic at the old house, I was also experiencing the new house as I moved belongings there.

The new house set off other creative ideas – in particular the landlord’s 100 yr old upright piano which he had left for us to play with.  Piano has always been an alien instrument to me, but this particular piano was such a beautiful artefact, I had to explore.  So on some of those days I was alone in the new house I made a few exploratory recordings on my phone. 

The piano’s tone was so deeply sonorous and warm, so melancholy in mood, it mirrored my feelings of loss in the passing of a decade of my life.  The piano segued a second phase of the process, a pause for reflection, a letting go & a careful finding-of-the-way into something new and unfamiliar

Once I had finished Tectonic and moved fully into the new house, I followed this pensive tone into some more ambient soundscapes, my first serious attempts at this form. The track Sinking In (a wordplay on the tentative state of “sinking into” the new, like into a hot bath, and also “synching” as in “synchronising with”) is shaped around a slow repeated asymmetrical piano melody, with a minimalist second layer of piano and a cello drone.  I returned to a similar form some years later on the piano album The Witnessing Of Paint In Its Drying Moments.  Another track that uses the old piano, the 12-minute Uncertainty Box, is a much more experimental soundscape.  I had accidentally discovered how to slow down recorded sounds, and this track features a slowed-down recording of my partner and her dad singing inside an empty silo on Maria Island, on Tassie’s East Coast. Their voices take on a ghostly Gregorian quality.

We moved into the house towards the tail of Winter – there was snow – but by October we were experiencing full-blown Spring.  The garden was an explosion of colour as bulbs and bushes burst into flower, the variety of birdsong was dazzling, and great swarms of bumblebees fuzzed around in the sunshine.  I made a lot of field recordings around the gardens, and the soundscape Solar Sonar features the bumblebees and various birdsongs.

Around this time my oldest son Cooper came down for a brief stay from Melbourne, bringing with him an assortment of electronic gadgetries including a Juno 6 synthesiser.  He showed me how to create some basic sounds, which I later edited into the opening track Aubergine Dreme.  I sampled a lot of the sounds into other later recordings, in particular on the following album,  Stelliferous.  During Coop’s visit we also experimented recording the tonal resonances of the piano, as sound textures.  An example can be found on the track Ghost Piano (Spectral Syntax Mix), on the album And Then I Wasn’t…(2019).

Melancholia also contains a few guitar-based excursions, but overall it is a deliberately downtempo album of driftings, soundscapes, moods and atmospheres. It is by no means intended to be a depressing album, nor an album illustrating depression, though in part it found shape in response to the powerful resonance I felt after watching the Lars Van Trier film of the same name. I certainly felt his film created powerful artistic analogies for the visceral experience of depression.

Personally I feel “melancholy” is far more than mere sadness – it encompasses many states of deep reflection that enable us to access deeper understandings of self – the wistful, the sombre, the hesitant, morose or pensive, regret and yearning…..perhaps the various voices of melancholy take us closer to the notion of Soul…

Many moments of fractured, frenetic & heart-full family life time-lapsed around & fed into these recordings as they evolved, all woven around the event of moving home, the settling, finding new ground & establishing space.

The Cadence Of Memory was something I wrote in my early twenties and oddly it returned to mind unbidden for this collection. Walking Eclipse was a descriptor I gave myself, after my partner pointed out that often when we talked around the house, I always stood, unintentionally, in a spot where a bright light would end up blazing out from behind my head and into her eyes, and causing my face to disappear into darkness. The album cover image was taken early one morning, as I was driving to the old house to do some final cleaning up.  The mountain was enveloped in a thick winter fog, with the morning sun’s rays squeezing through, creating odd abstractions in the trees.  It was the perfect mood for the album, and a perfect bridge to the album to come.

Part 3: Stelliferous

I was still completing final edits on Tectonic, and recording the last material for Melancholia, and the seasonal shift into Spring was also inspiring a new direction in my guitar-playing.  I found myself creating anew on the acoustic guitar, quite sunny progressions that were slightly skewed and using “invented” chords, and this feel began to translate to electric guitar as well, especially using a clean tone and touches of tremolo. 

As these three albums of material evolved, I came to think of them as an overlapping sequence, as belonging together – a trilogy. Whereas Tectonic represented upheaval & reaction, and Melancholia represented pause & reflection, Stelliferous was very much about stepping into the new.

These instrumentals are all guitar-driven, clean electric sounds & acoustic layers shimmering with tremolo sparkles, noodly electronic textures swimming through the gaps, melodic bass and understated percussive grooves ambling around in the background.

Trick photography: this is a shoebox

My new recording space (until I migrated out to the shed later) was a shoebox-sized office room downstairs.  Although I didn’t have a drumkit at that point, I had an ad hoc percussion set-up consisting of a motley bunch of old toms and kick drums salvaged from various dumps, and when they were set up in the “office” alongside guitars etc, I could barely move.  Nonetheless, I adapted and went on to record 6 albums there before moving out to the shed.

While I am a big fan of catchy melody, Stelliferous is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to making “pop” music.  I still had Ross’ bass guitar on loan, and on these pieces I especially enjoyed exploring the bass as a melodic instrument, while the guitar often held the rhythm.  Most of the tracks have a “loose jam” feel, and in constructing them I enjoyed setting up sections that allowed me to really relax into my playing.  The opening track Slothmeister kinda sums this up for me – named as an affectionate reference to my younger son’s very sleepy Zen-like presence.  Some similar examples of relaxed groove are Seasonal Affection Distorter, Optimism Takes A Walk and Northfacing.  It’s the sort of feel I’d love to feel myself playing INSIDE a band, that is, feeling the music all around me.

Ideally I would have preferred a real live drummer on a drumkit, but as usual I adapted within my limited resources.  I had been using a cajon to approximate a kick / snare texture since the SKIN album, and by playing the other old drums I had (and a couple of ancient cymbals) with brushes, then adding some FX and mixing the whole thing into the background…..well, it sort of creates the illusion of a drumkit….

Stelliferous is still one of my favourite creations, and one I can still enjoy listening to in its entirety.  It was about trying to capture the optimism & potentiality of the new, to harness the sunshine and connect with a kind of lazy organic funk that sparkled – like constellations, like dewdrops in the sun, like ideas budding….

The cover image is a detail of a sunsparkle reflecting on water, from a photo taken by my daughter when she was 12. She has a northfacing shine – in Tasmania, northfacing is To The Sun.