Interview With Ambient Musician, Thom Brennan.

"I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to spiritualism or New Age notions of mysticism. I’m pretty grounded in science and nature. Music is nothing more than our strange and inexplicable attraction to sounds that are appealing to us. I guess the notion that we are a tiny part of the Universe becoming self-aware, a collection of atoms discovering all the nuances of existence – including music, is kind of mystical, but it’s really just nature on it’s grandest scale."- Thom Brennan.

As we get older our musical and artistic tastes become more refined. I got really, really into ambient music in my mid-teens after stumbling into producer Jonson’s criminally underrated space ambient masterpiece “Mindlook”. Before then, I had only experienced the genre through Science Fiction movies and the occasional background piece in guided meditation videos. I found it to be quite relaxing and it introduced a bit of variety into my usual rotation. During that time, I was obsessed with underground and instrumental Hip-Hop, Jazz, Downtempo, and some other electronic offshoots like Trip-Hop and Acid Jazz; So it felt good to lay down and essentially be swallowed up by these expansive dronescapes. As time went on, I found myself delving deeper and deeper into the genre and before I knew it, I had arrived at the work of Thom Brennan, one of the pioneers of the minimal ambient movement of the 1980s.

Thom quickly became one of my favorites as his style was expansive, full, and engaging but left plenty of space for introspection or work. It was very easy to lay down and be wherever that particular piece took place and it had a certain intrusiveness to it that I appreciated. It was much more than background noise and I was really smitten with those kind of productions during that time. I have always been a fan of songs or albums that accurately represent their titles, so when I heard “Beneath Clouds” a beautifully produced, asian inspired long player, I felt just that, beneath clouds. I combed through his work and felt connected to it spiritually. I found that many of his pieces are oddly therapeutic.

It wasn’t until last year that I discovered his most recent album “Stories From the Forest” and it quickly became one of my favorites. It could quite possibly be my most played album from start to finish. I went camping in the Upper Peninsula here in Michigan last summer and listened to it in it’s entirety every night on my way to sleep as a way to mesh with the earthly landscapes of Greater Michigan. Masterfully produced, real, and slightly haunting, this album perfectly encapsulates the dark, lush, Michigan wilderness at night. A wilderness that in many respects, draws comparisons to Thom’s current stomping grounds in Washington.

After listening to most of his extensive catalogue that spans the greater part of two decades, he has gone on to become my favorite ambient producer and it brings me nothing but pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with such a renown talent.

Prox: Could you give us a bit of insight into who you are? Where are you from, how long have you been producing and what are some of your hobbies outside of making music?

Thom: I purchased my first synthesizer around 1980 or so. I was in College in Los Angeles at the time and my musical interests had started several years earlier when I heard an avant-garde composer, Morton Subotnik. I liked the “tone” of electronic instruments and the wave forms were pure, simple, and clear; Until the synthesist morphs them into shape. He described his music as sound sculptures, and it was a perfect description. I was also interested in minimalist music like Terry Riley and Phillip Glass. Riley used an electric organ and tape loop system (before anyone else thought of it) to play live and create hypnotic evolving patterns of notes, over which he would freely improvise. From there, I found the more ”rock” oriented electronic bands of the mid 70s that were happening in Europe like Tangerine Dream, Heldon, Popol Vuh, and Klaus Schulze among others. Ultimately, it lead to the completion of my first album in 1986 which was titled “Mountains”. Initially, it was released only as a self-funded cassette tape. Steve Roach around that time was working on his album “Structures from Silence” if I recall correctly, and he really acted as a guide and mentor on “Mountains” from start to finish, including the mastering. This was a challenge for him because it had all been recorded live to a cassette deck.

I travelled a bit growing up and as a kid I spent time living on the island of Okinawa in the late 60s, and later in Tucson, Arizona. Both places I think, developed my love for landscapes and nature, and that is often the inspiration for my music. I spent many years in Los Angeles. I lived there for the entirety of the 1980s then I moved to San Francisco for most of the 1990s, and i’ve been in the Seattle area since 2000.

Prox: What software and hardware are you using?

Thom: I don’t use any software, only hardware synthesizers. I started with an old electric organ and a small modular Roland System 100 in early 1980s. Over the years I have favored a number of instruments from Oberheim, Yamaha, Korg, and Roland. I have used workstations as my main instrument and controller since around 1992. Currently, I am using a Yamaha Motif workstation, and a Roland V-Synth set up which consists of a V-Synth GT keyboard linked with a V-Synth XT module. 

The main instrument I’m focused on right now is the V-Synth GT keyboard and the V-synth XT expander module. I’ve had them for several years but mainly used them as background instruments in my mixes. It has become my primary keyboard as of late. It’s a great synthesizer- one of the best I have used, and with the GT Keyboard controlling the XT module, it’s a fairly engaging performance tool and sound design kit. Between the keyboard and the expander unit, I have 3 synthesizer engines, 2 polyphonic pattern sequencers, and 3 step modulators that can be routed to any parameter, and a host of other processors and effects.
it also does sampling but I have no interest in that aspect. I am using it for it’s synthesizer engine which uses virtual analog and a simple form of FM synthesis. The last CD “Stories from the Forest” was the Motif and heavy on the V-synth GT.

Roland V-Synth GT

Prox: Who were some of your musical influences growing up? Are there any contemporary ambient artists that you’re a fan of?

Thom: I mentioned some of my earliest influences but I also liked early Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Edgar Froese. His album “Epsilon in Malaysian Pale” is one of my favorites of all time. Tangerine Dream’s “Rubycon” also. Both are from the mid-70s and are great examples of what was a very new sound in music at that time. There was a German band, Popol Vuh, that I really liked as well. In particular, a 20 minute track called “Vuh” from their album “In Den Garten Pharaoh” released in the early 70s, but its still around today. It was a sustained 20 minutes of cathedral pipe organ chords and an array of eastern percussion. That track will always be with me, and was an influence on my album “Satori”.

I also listened to Vangelis (who I think may be the greatest solo keyboardist of all time),
Brian Eno, and Harold Budd. The list is probably endless with names I have forgotten. The band Hammock is a favorite today, which can be best described as “ambient shoegaze”. That’s a recent trend in “ambient” that I listen to. I think it’s sometimes called Post rock, but there is an ambient influenced wing growing out of that genre. Sigur Ros is a favorite and kind of falls into that territory. I like everything I have heard from Iceland! 

I’m also listening to Richard Skelton. He is an English musician who is very much inspired by the moors of England. He creates really haunting and atmospheric music using violin, and loops. I came across his music recently and was addicted immediately. Plus, he has a lot of releases out from his own label. Also, a friend of mine Micah Wolfe from New Zealand, who sometimes goes by the artist name of Stray Theories. He has a number of self-produced albums available and has tracks at Bandcamp available. He is a favorite.

Prox: Did you experiment with other genres before settling on ambient?

Thom: No, I never thought about a style. I just do what comes naturally. I still don’t really classify it within a style. I don’t know what it would be called. The name “Ambient” was hi-jacked years ago from the work Brian Eno was doing and he created the idea of ambient music with albums like “Music for Airports”, and the “Apollo Soundtracks”. It was textural audio intended to be in the background as part of an environment. I’m not sure if most of my music falls into that category. Rather than being in the background, it’s generally intended to be front and center.

Prox: Much of your work has a meditative quality to it. Extremely atmospheric and deep tracks that are perfect for rumination, meditation or writing. Do you design the tracks with these activities in mind or do you just play?

Thom: No, I never give any thought to what the listener may use the music for. Although a landscape or a “Place” may have inspired the music, I am usually immersed in the audio textures while recording and not really thinking about anything else. It’s largely improvised so my focus is all on the activity at hand. Since the inspirations are often from landscapes, or nature, I think that helps a lot in creating the “atmospheric” or “meditative” aspects. Most of the music I listen to tends to be, to varying degrees, introspective. Sometimes meditative, but certainly most tends to be calming in some way, so it would be natural for me to express that in my own works.

Prox: Has spiritualism or any other philosophy played a role in your style or decision to create ambient music over other genres?

Thom: Not really. I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to spiritualism or New Age notions of mysticism. I’m pretty grounded in science and nature. Music is nothing more than our strange and inexplicable attraction to sounds that are appealing to us. I guess the notion that we are a tiny part of the Universe becoming self-aware, a collection of atoms discovering all the nuances of existence – including music, is kind of mystical, but it’s really just nature on it’s grandest scale.

Prox: How different would you say ambient music is today as opposed to when you first began producing?

Thom: The term ambient at that time was limited to a few genuinely ambient artists- Eno and Harold Budd come to mind. It was very quiet music. The electronic music I was listening to then was capable of being quite loud and at times aggressive. Tangerine Dream is remembered for the more mellow sound of their albums, but anyone who saw them live in the 1970s or 1980s didn’t leave the concert thinking of them as “ambient”.Today other styles have merged into the field creating a really endless range of genres, sub-genres and styles. It means the genre is healthy and growing.

Obviously the use of computers and software wasn’t an option in the early days. Part of the wonder at that time over electronic music was it being new, and the amazing modular synths of the time that people were using to create it. I still think that is more interesting than a computer screen but software has brought the cost down now allowing more people to do music of any kind, and that is a good thing.

Hardware synthesizers have evolved a lot! I have instruments today that I could have barely dreamed of 25 years ago. It has made it easier to work from start to finish in a home studio and produce something that sounds professional. Then you have the internet, which did not exist then. It has made distribution of music a possibility that the individual musician barely had access to 25 years ago.

Think for a moment and imagine a world that had no Google, Smart phones, iTunes, Amazon, or Spotify. It simply didn’t exist. You had to handwrite and mail letters. It was the Stone Age. Honestly, I don’t know how we survived back then!!!

Prox: Given the length of some of your tracks, how long does it usually take for you to make and mix a track?

Thom: Most of the time is spent in sound design before recording even begins. Once I have an “ensemble” of sounds (anywhere from 4 to 16), I start improvising and see where it leads. It’s a very unstructured process. I may record dozens of takes before I have material that I think is worth keeping. I have been editing on an Alesis Masterlink. The Masterlink records in 24 bit -48k audio and saves to a hard drive. From there, I can apply basic mastering effects. The mix is all done within the Motif workstation sequencer before being recorded.

The whole process can take some time, and result in many hours of recordings that won’t be used. It really depends on how the actual performance plays out and how well I capture the recording. The preliminary work, sound design and rehearsals may take days, or even weeks.
 

Skagit River, Washington.

Prox: I have a bit of a love affair with Seattle. I have never been to that side of country, but I want to move there from Michigan in a few years. Could you describe the culture or “flavor” of the Pacific Northwest? Does Seattle and the surrounding area have an influence on your music?

Thom: The area definitely influences my music. The landscapes around Puget Sound are dense forests, rivers, mountains with snow covered peaks, temperate rainforests on the Pacific coast, and high desert east of the Cascade Mountains. It’s pretty diverse and it has been an inspiration on several albums. Puget Sound is an inland sea and it’s filled with islands. Many are easy to get to and finding a quiet beach to wander is easy, outside of the peak of summer tourists. Seattle is a hub of progressive and liberal ideas and culture, and is really a very beautiful city. I don’t spend much time in the city (the traffic is a nightmare) but there are great restaurants, lots of things to do, and it’s remarkably clean for a city of its size, especially compared to where I was before, in L.A. and San Francisco.

The northwest culture is mix of traditional influences, such as the fishing industry and Native American culture; And the modern influx of tech. Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and Starbucks are all born and headquartered here. Starbucks evolved out of the Seattle “Café Culture” and neighborhood cafes were common in the city. You could sit and read next to a fireplace or chat with friends over espresso and I think the fact we tend to have a lot of gray damp weather, encouraged that. Most of them are fading away though now with a Starbucks on every street corner. There is still an espresso shop within walking distance anywhere in the city, or if you prefer- Marijuana stores are also pretty common, with it being legalized here recently.

We have a lot of Native American Tribes in the area and aside from the upscale Casino Resorts, this adds a lot to the local culture outside of the urban areas. A few years ago, I was exploring the coast out on the northwest tip of the State which is part of the Makaw Tribe reservation lands. I happened to roll into their coastal fishing village during a summer festival serving up traditional fresh smoked salmon. That’s something I really like about this place. It’s a blend of the very old, and the very new in a landscape that is dynamic, and offers endless exploration. But like most of the Coastal cities, it’s getting very expensive here, especially in and near Seattle.


Prox: Stories from the Forest is my favorite from your catalogue and I almost always listen to in its entirety. What was the inspiration for this album? Was there any particular event or set of happen stances that led to the creation of this particular project?

Thom: That was a long running project that changed direction at the last minute. I had completed a softer, more spacey version but it was not sitting well with me. I decided to re-record it with a completely different set of sounds. I went for more edge, distortion, and guitar type processors. The final result was a more aggressive sound and pace than the original. It fit better with the state of mind I was in at the time. There was no specific inspiration for this album. It evolved out of the sounds I was programming on the V-synth and Yamaha Motif. Usually, I build a group of sounds that I am going to use first, so I have an ensemble of “instruments”, then I improvise on ideas until something starts to lead somewhere.  The title references a “story” because the tracks are intended to be listened to together like chapters. This is why I tend to use many of the same “instrument” voices on each track, and the tracks don’t have separate titles. It’s just Parts 1-11. 

Prox: What is your favorite album from your catalogue and what were you trying to convey or tell the listeners on it?

Thom: Possibly “Mist". I recorded that right after moving to Seattle and visiting the Olympic Rainforest. Having spent most of my life (since my early teens) in the Southwest that was a trip. If Elves were real, they would be there. I called it “The Moss Cathedrals” on one of my albums. On “Mist” I was doing my best to create a soundtrack for that forest. It’s not intended to be a literal picture, but just a state of mind. Ultimately, the forest was my inspiration, but it’s totally open to the listener to create whatever they want with it.

Stories from the Forest” was my best from a technical standpoint I think. The recording is crystal clear and the individual instruments are clear and distinct in the mix. I was very happy with how that ended up from that standpoint. Since most of my work is largely live studio recordings to a digital stereo mix, getting a good mix at the start is really important as it’s hard to fix that afterwards. My first one, “Mountains” also remains one of my own favorites. That said, it’s easier for me to identify an album I hate… which is “Signals In Moonlight.” I wish I had never put it out. Aside from a few tracks, it was half baked.

Olympic Rainforest, Washington.

Prox: Do you think it’s important for producers to understand the breath and scope of nature if they wish to create pieces in the same vein as yours?

Thom: No, I don’t think that’s required but I think it’s a healthy thing for all humans. We are not separate from nature. We are as much a part of the natural world as insects. I try to convey my own sense of wonder from nature, but someone else may try to express something else entirely. But by definition, ambient music should create “an ambience”, or an environment, or add character to an environment.

Prox: This question is a bit more esoteric, but what do you think of Cymatics and the healing capabilities of music? How cathartic of an experience is production for you? “River Flow” from the Tones EP has a particularly warming effect on me.

Thom: “River Flow” is a favorite piece of mine, and I wish I had put it out on CD. I’m glad you like it. I’m not that familiar with Cymatics. I know it in reference to the organized patterns vibration can create in water for example. It seems to me, that like the concept of Emergence, in that it shows that there is an inherent “desire” for organization to resist chaos in the Universe. I don’t know if I believe music heals. But it can create a state of mind more conducive to healing.

Prox: What do you wish to say with your music?

Thom: I’m not really saying anything. I have no mission, no statement. I’m playing with sound, and hoping someone likes it. That’s all there is to it. Hopefully it serves as a soundtrack for the listener’s own imaginings.

Prox: Are there any plans for a new release?

Thom: The last few years I slowed down a bit on output, but I am working on a couple of new projects, and i'm not sure which will be finished first or when. One is entirely done on the V-Synth GT and XT, and is a total throwback to the kind of live improvisational music I was doing in the mid-80s up to my first release “Mountains”. It has some similarity to that album. “Stories from the Forest” headed a bit in that direction but this has a more analog sound. Not entirely sure where it will lead. The other project is more “ambient- drone” in nature- maybe comparable to “Mist”, but neither are close to done yet though.

You can purchase Thom’s music here.